The White Tiger: Narrative of the Subaltern

The White Tiger on Netflix

This the fourth and concluding part on Aravind Adiga examines how substantial is the narrative of the subaltern in The White Tiger and whether it presents any real solutions to the general malaise. Well, Adiga is not the least flimsy. Had he been insubstantial, he wouldn’t have got the 40th Man Booker Prize in 2008 for his very first novel.

Read Part 3: Nation-State Dichotomy

Nonetheless, the narrative doesn’t provide a resolution to the issues of class conflict and the not-so-peaceful coexistence of abject poverty and opulence in India. A counter-hegemonic working-class culture is presented through the characterization of Balram. But, do the killing of the master by the servant and the abjuration of all the family ties constitute acts of rebellion? I personally am not sure. Rather I will opine that Balram lets himself be co-opted by the system. Balram becomes another Mr. Ashok Sharma. In the end, it is the system that emerges as the winner. He is not stuff that revolutions are made of. Lily Want would agree:

…there is no attempt to alter the existing categories and systems of thought even as he dialectically represents and reinforces class conflict and class distinction. …Adiga is trapped in the very culture he seeks to critique… (Want 2011, 77)

Another critic warns:

Revenge murder is no solution to bring about social justice. Subscribing to his principle of taking law into his own hands, will lead only to anarchy and escalation of violence, as W.B. Yeats points out in “The Second Coming,” in the background of the Russian revolution as well as the Irish troubles. (Sebastian and Das 2009, 641)

True, and The White Tiger is not a left propaganda novel. It does not champion the cause of a proletariat revolution. It only exposes the subalternity which is a deep-rooted malaise of casteism and class consciousness. And, it warns Gurgaon of Laxmangarh. It warns India Shinning of Bharat Suicidal. Those who are on verge suicide may also kill the assumed oppressors and then commit suicide. It reminds us that tiny hell-hole villages like Bhatta Parsaul will not let the politicians use it as pockets of petty party politics for time immemorial. What type of political and media sensibility do we demonstrate by keeping the entire North-East out of national mainstream? We have all types of news. Even saas-bahu ‘news’ is on the tube. National news channels have got time slotted for TV saas-bahus. Only we don’t get to hear anything from the subaltern, whether social, economic, political, and regional. Interestingly even the world of games and sport has its own subaltern. Why? Why is it perennially so?

— Because they don’t sell. — Because they don’t generate TRP. Do we plan to bring these groups into the national mainstream by ignoring and insulting them on a routine? It is not that they don’t speak. They at times roar by achieving the highest recognitions. Still, they don’t get that type of governmental recognition or media adulation that the darlings of the field get. The psychopathic behaviour of Balram scares us ominously with crude humour and curt dialogues and descriptions of the Ganges as the river of death and disgust (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 14). Slavery was prohibited long ago but servitude continues to haunt us in the 21st century. Corruption and servitude are embedded there in the institution of marriage as well.

The animal imagery is very intriguing from the perspective of servility. The family’s water buffalo is a “dictator” and the landlords also have themselves named after animals. They are metaphorically rebuked as ‘The Buffalo’, ‘the Wild Boar’, ‘the Stork’ and ‘the Raven’. Balram is scared even of the lizard. Over and above all, there is the Great Indian Rooster Coop[1] that fails to register a coup. Read more on servitude in Part 2.

Apart from caste and class, religious consciousness is also the basis of subalternity. As such, the Stork orders his grandson to call himself Gavaskar rather than Azharuddin while playing cricket with Balram. One more point, despite the service sector providing a great chunk of the GDP, we Indians have hardly any respect for the domestic service providers – cooks, drivers, sweepers. Perhaps, unorganized domestic service doesn’t count as service. It will be reckoned in the national income only after the like of Reliance Industries join the bandwagon. Whatever the nature of the job of the domestic help, we just call them servants as if they fit into the class of slaves. This mindset is the hallmark of the third world. Not only this, all domestic-helps of Nepali origin seem to have names like Ram Bahadur. Ashok boastingly tells his wife,

We have got people to take care of us here – our drivers, our watch men our masseurs, and where in New York will you find someone to bring you tea and sweets biscuits while you are still lying in the bed, the way Ram Bahadur does for us? (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 89)

So, in the age of all types of solution providers, does Balram pose as the Great Solution Provider? Sorry, to me Balram is not a hero; he is not a villain either. He is a sort of anti-hero. He believes in no God as His domain is ordained to maintain Social Order. There is a dangerous inclination in his nature of brutally subverting the existing social order and replacing it with a New Order of the White Tigers. As a believer in rule of law and order I would find this too menacing:

It offers us an image of our absurd universe struggling amid the horrors of a new Dark Age. For if God no longer is, or rather has never existed, and if atheism ceases – unlike that of the nineteenth or of the eighteenth century – to be a comfort and a reassurance, are we not plunging into a terrifying Satanism? (Legouis, Cazamian and Vergnas 1981, 1419)[2]

The post-colonial literature has subalternity[3] as a major concern. Even movies with this theme as centrality are a craze. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog millionaire based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A bagged eight Oscars, seven BAFA (British Academy Film Awards) and four Golden Globe trophies in 2009. It was acclaimed the best movie of 2008. The White Tiger saw the light the same year. The relations between worker and employer are refracted through the lens of gender and are used by the workers to build and reflect upon their gendered selves. The relation between Mr. Ashok and Balram Halwai is a relationship between hegemonic masculinity and subaltern masculinity, the former bent upon reducing the later to subaltern femininity. Uneasy lies the head that employs a domestic servant. Here I am tempted to quote at length:

While the male servant appears to embody a less valued masculinity by virtue of performing such menial and heavy labour, he is not always emasculated. … Ultimately, the masculinity of male servants coexists uneasily with the bhadra masculinity and femininity of his employers.

Bhadralok constructions of domesticity and gender act as a powerful master discourse for these domestic servants. … While employers judge the masculinity of male servants in terms of their lack of swadhinata (which causes their servility) and their female servants because they are not protected, the servants instead foreground the concepts of male responsibility and female relationality as alternative ideologies which legitimate their masculinity or femininity.

If the essence of domestic service is subservience if it is less about the completion of tasks than about being at the beck and call of the employer, then it is also a job that runs counter to hegemonic ideas of masculinity. (Ray, 26:3, 2000, pp. 9, 12, 21)

To conclude, The White Tiger offers a purportedly long-awaited creative departure from Salman Rushdie’s history and the individual theme. Although on the surface he boasts to be, deep inside the chief protagonist is not an original thinker. He sure is an original listener. The narrative – fantastic and shocking simultaneously – is in the mold of dark comedy. It is self-mocking, persuasive and compelling all in one. He is “a man of action and change,” “a thinking man,” “an entrepreneur,” “a man who sees tomorrow,” and a “murderer.” He finds many similarities between himself and the Chinese Premier.

The political system, religion, family and above all the culture of servitude perpetuates the division between the Light and the Dark in India. To reaffirm, India is a great Rooster Coop that lacks the inclination to stage a coup. He keeps repeating to himself this couplet: “I was looking for the key for years / but the door was always open”? Balram kills his master to fulfill his father’s wish that his son “live like a man,” take back what Ashok had stolen from him, and break out of the rooster coop. Paradoxically, in order to live fully as a man, he takes a man’s life. Balram’s thoughts of his family initially hold him back from killing Ashok. This reminds us of a similar scene in Hamlet. He goes back to retrieve Dharam at the end of the novel. Only God (Adiga) knows whether his decision absolves him in any way. Yes, the door was always open. No, the key doesn’t lie in killing the masters. But then, competition without an effective level playing field is a mockery of the very idea.

The novel follows the Master-Slave dialectic (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft in German; also translated Lordship and Bondage) which is a key element of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and his total philosophical system. The term describes, in narrative form, an encounter between two self-conscious beings, who engage in a “struggle to the death” before one enslaves the other, only to find that this does not give him the control over the world he had sought. Self-consciousness must be considered not as an individual achievement, or an achievement of natural and genetic evolution, but as a social phenomenon. Asymmetric recognition in this way is authority without responsibility, on the side of the Master, and responsibility without authority, on the side of the Slave. Hegel has had an unacknowledged influence on Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about Master Morality and Slave Morality. Similarly, Frantz Fanon coined the terms Black Skin, White Masks to describe the colonial relations. (dialectic n.d.)

In brief, the novel offers a window into the rapidly changing economic situation in India. It reveals an India that is as unforgiving as it is promising. It is ultimately a cautionary tale both for people like Balram and Mr. Ashok. Balram has an ambition; he wants to escape to New India. He succeeds and pays the price for it like Christopher Marlow’s Dr. Faustus. In the end, The White Tiger doesn’t pose any solutions. Nonetheless as any substantial literature, a mirror it does hold to the state at large. As an ardent supporter of liberal democratic values, I put down the pen only hoping democracies the world over strive to realize the UN ideals:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (Article 25(1), UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Post Script

Reportedly, an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is ready for streaming on Netflix. Our international desi girl Priyanka Chopra and Rajkumar Rao form the main cast. Start over here again with Article Part 1.



Adiga, Aravind. 2008. (accessed November 2011).

—. The White Tiger. New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008.

Albert, Edward. History of English Literature. 5th Edition. Oxford University Press, 2005.

dialectic, Master-slave.

Jahnavi, Mrs., and Vilasgiri Prof. Goswami. “How White is Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger?” Cyber Literature: The International Online Journal – Literature, Humanities & Communication Technologies 4, no. 1 (June 2011): 21-23.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, Professor. “The Post-Berlin Aftermath: Many walls still need to be brought down.” November 2009.

Legouis, Emile, Louis Cazamian, and Raymond Las Vergnas. History of English Literature. 1st Indian Edition. Translated by Helen Douglas Irvine. New Delhi: MacMillan India, 1981.

Poonkodi, Ph.D. “The Voice of Servility and Dominance Expressed through Animal Imagery in Adiga’s The White Tiger.” Language in India Vol. 9 (November 2009): 184-194.

Mathur, Rashmi. “Turbulence of Globalization in Rising Metropolis- A Case study of Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole and Adiga’s The White Tiger.” IRWLE Vol. 7, no. 1 (January 2011): 1-8.

Naipaul, V.S. An Area of Darkness. London: Picador, 1995.

Randeep Rana, Ph.D. “Perils of Socio-economic Inequality – A Study of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.” Language in India ( Volume 11 (October 2011): 453-460.

Ray, Raka. “Masculinity, Femininity And Servitude: Domestic Workers In Calcutta In The Late Twentieth Century.” Feminist Studies, 26:3, 2000.

Dr. A.J. Sebastian. “Voicing Slum-subaltern in Slumdog Millionaire.” Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences 1, no. 3 (2009): 897-920.

Sebastian, A. J, PhD, and Nigamanand, Ph.D. Das. “Drawbacks of Indian Democracy in Homen Borgohain’s Pita Putra And Aravind Adiga’sThe White Tiger and Between The Assassinations: A Comparative Study.” Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciencesdiga’s 1, no. 3 (2009): 635-644.

Sebastian, A.J., Ph.D. “Poor-Rich Divide in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.” Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences 1, no. 2 (2009): 229-245.

Singh, Krishna. “Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger: The Voice of Underclass—A Postcolonial Dialectics.” Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies Vol.-I, no. 2, Winter (July-December 2009): 98-112.

Want, Lily. “The Poetics and Politics of Cultural Studies in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.” Asiatic 5, no. 1 (June 2011): 69-77.

Yadav, Ram Bhawan. “Representing the Postcolonial Subaltern: A study of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.” The Criterion: An International Journal in English ( Vol. II, no. III (September 2011): 1-7.



[1] Specifically for the animal imagery in TWT one can refer to M. Poonkodi’s The Voice of Servility and Dominance Expressed through Animal Imagery in Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’ in Language in India, Volume 9: 11 November 2009 (ISSN 1930-2940). The said article is accessible at

[2] This comment the renowned authors have made in connection with the Angry Young Men brigade.

[3] Subalternity is in a way synonymous with social marginality. It is characteristic of hierarchical caste-class composite relations in Indian society. The textbook veneer of democratic equality and the law book jargon of equality before law barely mask the violent, feudal nature of much of Indian manifestations of power and authority. The origin of the term ‘subaltern’ is traced to Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist and theoretician who, in his prison notes, used this concept to explain the perpetual inferior status of certain groups.

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