Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. New York: Free Press, 2008.
I did not enjoy this novel; its setting is too squalid and oppressive, but I couldn’t help but be moved by its power. “I am tomorrow,” (4) writes the novel’s narrator to Wen Jiabao, Premier of China. “I am not just any murderer, but one who killed his own employer (who is a kind of second father), and also contributed to the probable death of all his family members. A virtual mass murderer” (37).
Each night, for seven nights, Balram Halwai alias Munna writes to Premier Wen Jiabao prior to the Chinese Premier’s 2005 visit to India and outlines how he escaped from “the Darkness” of his village Laxmangarh to become “The White Tiger of Bangalore.” It is a story that takes Balram and the reader from the confines of rural, traditional India into the world of nouveau riche Delhi and then on to Balram’s becoming a business-man in Bagalore. It is a story of betrayal and corruption of every kind at every level of an intensely stratified society.
Neither uplifting nor optimistic, but grotesquely comic, The White Tiger is a Swiftian critique of contemporary India, the India often described by economists as one of the “Asian Tigers.” In Balram, Adiga creates an oddly sympathetic character even as he is outrageous, and the novel’s concerns are highly moral even as they shock. But then satire makes its point through discomforting its audience.
Despite this discomfort, however, there is a pleasure to be taken from the work that far exceeds mere enjoyment. The satisfaction I took from the work came from its ability to challenge my intellect, from its allusions, and from its use of imagery. Adiga plays with the significance of light and dark, with the tension between above and below, and with landscape as metaphor. Comic resonances of that other eastern story teller Scherherazade echo faintly though Balram has only seven nights to tell his tale.
The novel examines the power of the feminine. Two of the strongest characters in the work are Balram’s employer’s wife, Pinky Madam, and his grandmother, who bears a strong resemblance to the sticker of the goddess Kali “very black-skinned . . . holding a scimitar, and a garland of sculls” (113) attached to the dashboard of the Honda City. I wished very much that I understood more about the significance of Kali. The more I did my very superficial investigation into myths and traditions about Kali, the more I realised that there is a whole essay or more to be written about how Adiga draws on the significance of Kali, sometimes called Kali the destroyer. But she is far more than that. She is a figure of time, change, and empowerment.
And this is a novel about change and empowerment. What Balram succeeds in doing is fleeing what he calls the “Great Indian Rooster Coop” (149) the situation where “a handful of men . . . have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude” (149). He goes on to explain the impossibility of leaving the coop because of “the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice, . . . the Indian family . . . . Only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed—hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters—can break out of the coop” (150). Yet Balram does it.
Balram’s encounter in the Delhi zoo with the caged white tiger, “the creature that gets born only once every generation in the jungle” (237) provokes him into action. Here again, Adiga offers us an image heavy with significance, especially given the associations in Asian, particularly Chinese and Japanese mythology and astrology with the tiger. Balram, is after all, writing to the Chinese premier. Here again, too, is an example of Adiga’s awareness that he is writing within a tradition of narratives. We recognise the conventions of the traditional story of the hero who must be transformed in order to achieve his quest. As the caged tiger and Balram look into each other’s eyes, Balram faints and feels drawn “down into the dark earth” (258). To become Ashok Sharma The White Tiger of Bangalore, Balram must leave everything of his past life behind, cut himself off from the past, by killing both literally and metaphorically his old life.
By the end of the novel, I realised there is way more in The White Tiger than brilliant social satire. I am tempted to revise my assessment of the novel as “neither uplifting nor optimistic.” It is pleasurable in its multi-layered complexity of significance and possibly optimistic in its celebration of the desire to search for something personally authentic, for something beautiful. Even as it criticises the apparent ugliness of the supposedly new India, which is perhaps not so new after all in its corruption, exploitation of the poor, the divide between castes and religions, the novel in its celebration of beauty both past and present suggests the possibility of something different. There is beauty in India and in Indian culture. In the course of his somewhat picaresque journey, the Hindu Balram has learnt to love Muslim poets, and it is his understanding of one of those poets that allows him to assert, “If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India” (236). Adiga underscores the relationship between morality and aesthetics and suggests the possibility of a different tomorrow—remember Balram claims to be “tomorrow” (4). For me, the words that best capture what The White Tiger says to its readers are Balram’s recalling the words of the poet Iqbal, who “was so right. The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave” (236).