The White Tiger: Nation-State Dichotomy

The White Tiger - Quotes

So far, throughput Parts One and Two of the series on The White Tiger, we have understood that the picaresque novel is much more than a fictionalized tale set in India’s metros. It takes master-slave dialectics of aspirations head on. To explain servitude, Aravind Adiga uses the metaphor of rooster coop rather poignantly. Now, in this Part we will reveal the nation-state dichotomy.

Read Part 1

Is a vast multitude of citizens also in rooster coop like condition? Why and how has the common man become just an insignificant cog in the Giant Wheel of the State? From the state’s side, over population is the single most important cause. Simple laws of economics prevail here. Extra excess supply of man force has resulted in ever diminishing values of a single common man. Remember, they have evolved the concept of individual net worth. So, the state is not perturbed when a single or even a score of citizens suffer or go off the radar of life. That is the simple truth of the Third World. There are just too many cogs in the Giant Wheel to carry any individual net worth. And, mind it: “value of every single vote” is a chimera, a hoax. Even if a leader loses an election he manages to win a berth in the upper chamber or somewhere else. They are masters of political mechanics – sorry, machinations. The elite class has learnt ruling tricks from Britishers rather too well.

From the individual’s side, the cause is rooted in the values his subconscious is imbued with since childhood. To him masculinity equates with earning handsomely and supporting his near and dear ones live life lavishly. Dying for the state may earn martyrdom. But, does any value lie there in sacrificing limb, life or livelihood for the wellbeing of the neighbourhood or the cause of the larger civil society? He might instead be labeled anti-national. This is akin to saying that community and nation are antithetical.

Read Part 2

As said above, the ordinary man is much attached to his family. He would rather suffer all his life than let his wife, son and daughter feel pain. Here lies the trap. His son and daughter will suffer at the hands of the corrupt system if he chooses to take a step towards rebellion of any sort. The father has turned old and fragile. He is neither able to suffer on behalf of his son and daughter nor able to fight the system. When he could not rebel in his youth, how can he revolt in his old age? The cycle goes on. Thus, the rooster in the coop is co-opted and made incapable of staging a coup against the system. Another researcher agrees:

Thus the admirable man sacrifices his masculinity in order to ensure the survival of his charges. While the warrior who sacrifices his life so his people may live is considered a man and a hero, one who lives to ensure that his people survive is commonly not. (Ray 26:3, 2000, 29)

Hegemonic masculinity is unkind to those who fail to pass muster. Almost without exception the men [servants] with whom I spoke blamed themselves for not attaining the status of an independent man. (Ray 26:3, 2000, 25)

However, Balram Halwai, though the son of a rickshaw puller, is not chicken-hearted. He is a ferociously ambitious tiger with a philosophy of revenge against corruption, inequality and poverty. He is the white tiger: “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along once in a generation” (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 35) [and who] “keeps no friends. It’s too dangerous”. (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 302) The White Tiger is “the Autobiography of a Half Baked Indian”[i] who considers himself ‘half-baked’ as he was deprived of schooling like most children of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Through Balram the novel aspires to be the biography of a large section of the Indian population which has been left out of the economic boom and forgotten by the shining India. All this is true in spite of the Right to Education (RTE) and NREGA.

It is to be noted that the parents of Balram had not even named him properly; he was just Munna. His schoolteacher Mr. Krishna gave him the new name. Not to forget, Balram was the brother of the Hindu god Krishna. Interestingly, Krishna happens to be the name of the schoolteacher also. Moreover, he does not know his own age. The point I want to make is that Balram represents all those BPL people of India who are nameless entities for the political elite. [Ironically, the current dispensation wants to prepare a national register of these nameless entities.] They constitute just a vote bank – that too, divided by the politicians on the bases of caste and religion. It is education that can give them a name, an identity. One reviewer reminds us that Mulk Raj Anand’s “Coolie” had Munnoo who worked as a rickshaw puller. (Jahnavi and Goswami 2011) To quote Adiga, “Balram is what you’d hear if one day the drains and faucets in your house started talking”. (Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, Thursday 16 October 2008)

The hero – rather anti-hero gets corrupted to the length of turning a murderer:

The rest of the narrative will deal mainly with the sorrowful tale of how I was corrupted from a sweet, innocent, village fool into a citified fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness. (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 197)

One critic opines:

Balram’s tale is one of gradual deterioration from Edenic innocence to Satanic corruption, aided and abetted by a scheming mind and the overwhelming inequality inherent in urban life which defeats all theories of social justice. (Mathur 2011, 5-6)

The author sums up his case thus: in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: “Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And there are only two destinies: eat-or get eaten up” (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 54) Balram turns out to be Man-eater of Gurgaon. He is an extreme hedonist. He dreams not of revolution but of anarchism. He doesn’t just take law into his hand once; he plans to school the downtrodden of clean and peaceful Bangalore into crime in the name of social justice and self-righteousness. Mikhail Bakunin’s philosophy (The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.) will not serve the cause of democracy.

Keep your ears open in Bangalore – in any city or town in India – and you will hear stirrings, rumours, threats of insurrection. Men sit under lampposts at night and read. Men huddle together and discuss and point fingers to the heavens. One night, will they all join together – will they destroy the Rooster coop? …May be once in a hundred years there is a revolution that frees the poor. (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 303)

The White Tiger is the unofficial (hi)story of the people’s revolt that never took place in India. However, the time has changed. Many corners of the world are witnessing increasing instances of such uprisings. The Spring Revolution has already taken a toll of a number of royal/dictatorial heads in the Arab world. Occupy Wall Street[ii] is the rage in the western advanced world. Mass looting of malls has been seen in Britain. On and off India does have her own crusade against corruption. The novel is quite of the times. These are headless – except Anna Hazare’s movement – resistance movements – like the Quit India Movement of 1942 – with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions with the seemingly common agenda of zero tolerance of the greed and corruption of the 1% of the population. Of note, both Shaheen Bagh and Hong Kong protests have remained acephalous.

There seems to be chaos on the streets. Nonetheless, human society is the beautiful expression of order and balance arising out of chaos. Politics – the art of the possible – has to demonstrate its relevance by making a New World Order out of this chaos. It cannot just let market rule all the world and show utter helplessness in the face of double-digit inflation and fuel prices increasing every alternate month. And to top this all, one or the other bank fails the depositors each year as if that should be the routine. On the one hand, the government forces digital transactions; on the other, banks – the largest one – cannot guard even their ATMs. Aam admi finds chaos in this New India. The nation fails to make sense out of this order of the state. The arguments of the state apparatus want to perpetuate the myth of incorrectly perceived order and peace. How often and how long will, in the name of order, the nation prefer to stand in queue and suffer a few deaths than to take a final shot on rebellion? We might be living in times of multiple revolutions, unwittingly compared by many to the age of 1848.[iii]

Balram – Adiga‘s ‘Gatsby’ – symbolizes the educated unemployed youth in the rural and semi-urban India who are on the verge of “rebellion against prevalent dominant ideology, cultural supremacy and [who] investigates the petrified condition simultaneously issuing a warning for struggle of the marginalized because humiliation, resentment and grief” (Randeep Rana 2011, 459) in the midst of opulence in the form malls, multiplexes and multi-crore scams resulting from neo-liberalization caused by the new regime since 1991. The scourge of naxalism and the spurt in urban crime cannot be sorted out just by treating it as law and order problem.

The entire story is about personal drive and determination that looks upon education as the mantra of emancipation. Balram has the inborn ability to internalize his surroundings. A story of human adaptation! The novel is also a scathing comment on our education system:

Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you’ll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from old text books, sentences about politics read in a newspaper, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of old geometry textbooks – all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half cooked ideas in your head. (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 11)

Another critic compares Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger with Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole and finds:

Both of them have successfully depicted the chaos, suffering, frustration, inferiority and black misery hidden behind the global, glittering urban spectacle. The two writers have shown how individual aspirations and dreams are suppressed under mammoth social strictures and pressures. (Mathur 2011, 7)

To quote Lily Want:

In this social system the “colossal underclass” finds itself caught between incomprehensible psychological pressures that shape their desires and social forces that restrict fulfillment of these desires. Working under coercive supervision, they lose all autonomy and personal satisfaction from their work. Thus Adiga makes his debut novel provide a critical understanding of the underlying processes in economic and social relations and comes close to Antoni Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” who are needed to develop a new social order by questioning and countering oppressive hegemony. (Want 2011, 73)

To conclude – Part 4


[i] TWT, p.10

[ii] In mid-2011, the Canadian-based Adbusters Foundation, best known for its advertisement-free anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, proposed a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate influence on democracy, address a growing disparity in wealth, and the absence of legal repercussions behind the recent global financial crisis.

[iii] Though inspired very generally by the ideas of liberal nationalism and democracy, the mostly middle-class demonstrators of 1848 had, like their Arab and other contemporaries, very different goals in different countries. In Hungary, they demanded independence from Habsburg Austria. In what is now Germany, they aimed to unify the German-speaking peoples into a single state. In France, they wanted to overthrow the monarchy (again). In some countries, revolution led to pitched battles between different ethnic groups. Others were brought to a halt by outside intervention.

4 thoughts on “The White Tiger: Nation-State Dichotomy”

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