Adapted into a 2021 film starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao, Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) is an Indian novel that dives into the truths behind its modernization.
“The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.”
Winner of the 40th Booker Prize, Indian author Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger tells the darkly comic tale of its protagonist’s rags-to-riches story set against the backdrop of India’s economic boom in a globalized world. Narrated in retrospect, the events of the novel are threaded through with a pronounced ironic tone from beginning to end, giving the tale a distinctly wry and sardonic flavor. It has proved to be a bestseller and received acclaim for its brutal realist depiction of Indian society and its many knotty issues. Adiga presents a sobering look at the murky underbelly of India’s neoliberal tryst with modernity, taking inspiration from the nineteenth-century social realism of Dickens and Balzac and combining it with formal elements of the Picaro novel.
In several ways, The White Tiger represents a departure from the Indian novels in English that preceded it, which have largely gone the route of glamorizing the so-called ‘new shining India’. Like Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, published nearly a decade after Adiga’s book, The White Tiger opts instead to highlight the cracks and fissures forming along the country’s socio-political bedrock upon which its expanding middle class builds new fortunes. The protagonist Balram’s presentation of his moral lapses, showing no trace of remorse and instead finding ways to justify them (as steps necessary to climb the socio-economic ladder), points also to another troubling development: the so-called American dream colonizing Indian masses to the point where it supersedes any consideration of ethics.
The Premise of The White Tiger
The novel is narrated in first-person by the protagonist, Balram Halwai, in a series of seven letters addressed to the Chinese head of state, Wen Jiabao, during the latter’s visit to India. Through the letters, Balram recounts his journey from a poverty-stricken childhood to his current life as a successful entrepreneur running his own cab company. We learn that his father, Vikram, was a rickshaw puller in rural Bihar, where he lived with his extended family. Despite their impoverishment, Balram’s father fought hard to send him to school instead of joining the workforce. The little boy showed promise in academics and once earned the nickname ‘white tiger’ – “the creature that comes along once in a generation” – from a school inspector following a display of his intelligence.
Despite his academic skills, Balram’s education was cut short by his father dying from tuberculosis. He was forced to join his brother Kisan in working at a roadside tea stall in Dhanbad, where he picked up the local chit-chat that taught him more about his country and its shifting terrain of political and economic opportunities, spurring him on to be opportunistic himself. Becoming a chauffeur and driving rich people around seemed to be a lucrative career bump, and Balram coaxed his grandmother to fund his driving lessons. After much difficulty, Balram managed to get a job as the second driver of a local landlord and spent his days envying the senior driver, Ram Persad. Soon, his fortunes rose as the landlord’s son Ashok and his wife Pinky returned from America and settled in Delhi, taking Balram with them.
Delhi showed Balram the stark disparities in wealth and power that form the backbone of the nation, filled with chaos, corruption and the most brazen acts of exploitation. One night, an inebriated Pinky took the wheel from Balram and accidentally hit a child, which resulted in Ashok pressuring Balram to shoulder all the blame by admitting that he was driving alone. A desperate Balram murdered his boss, stole a big bundle of money earmarked for a bribe, and moved to Bangalore to set up his own cab company. He launched ‘White Tiger Drivers’, raking in profits while carrying techies and call center employees to their offices, and his assimilation within India’s booming economy seems on the verge of completion. Balram appears to have finally escaped the shackles of his upbringing and joined the elite managerial class, aspiring to move into real estate next, even though his journey entailed descending into a quagmire of moral and ethical nightmares.
From Darkness to Light
Balram’s perspective on the development of modern India brings forth the vast disparities and paradoxes governing lives inside the nation, highlighting aspects that are often lost within the sea of mainstream media narratives. Through the eyes of his protagonist, Adiga finds contemporary India to be split between two social spheres: one that Balram calls the ‘India of Darkness’ – the rural world of the poor and downtrodden, and the other ‘India of Light’ – the urban world of the rich and powerful elites. The former still lives in the thrall of regressive social practices handed down from a pre-modern past, while the latter is fast outstripping such constraints by adopting Western values of Enlightenment rationality. The contrast is heightened for Balram when he moves to the capital city Delhi, where the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-poor are often found in close proximity, with slums mushrooming around fast-developing industrial towns.
Balram imagines his journey as that of a movement from darkness to light, running parallel to India’s trajectory towards becoming a global economic superpower. However, The White Tiger also shows us how this neat categorical distinction between ‘Darkness’ and ‘Light’ collapses as modernity runs its course: Balram, born in ‘Darkness’, claims to have had a certain kind of light within him that promises to lift him out of his present predicament. It is what separates him from the rest of the inhabitants in his village, the reason he is called ‘the white tiger’, reflected by the promise he showed in academics while still at school. Undoubtedly, this light within Balram (despite growing up in ‘Darkness’) was made possible because of developmental policies undertaken by the state – policies that encourage education as a means to upward social mobility, whose effects we see in Balram’s father desperately struggling to ensure his son’s schooling.
On the other hand, as Balram grows in power and wealth and makes his way into the ‘India of Light’, we find that it isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, that there’s a heart of darkness gnawing at the light and threatening to dim its aura. The road to successful entrepreneurship, at least in Balram’s case, seems to be paved with lies, corruption, backstabbing, and even murder. Cyclical elements across the novel serve as reminders of the profound inescapability of the ‘Darkness’ referred to – the way Ashok tries to bribe and pay off his way out of his misdeeds is repeated by Balram himself, and when, in Bangalore, he bribes the cops to set up his company and later pays off a family whose son was killed by one of his employees. The lie of the Enlightenment (a movement referring by name to the process of “bringing to light”) is revealed in its crudest forms in Adiga’s portrait of an India following the progressive footsteps of the West.
Why You Should Read The White Tiger
Reading the novel, one gets a sense of how the allure of capitalist freedom entices the impoverished and oppressed Indian masses, who rush headlong into its clutches only to emerge at the other end as witnesses to the rampant corruption of social values. The protagonist seeks desperately to realize for himself the promises of liberal capitalism, aiming to escape the constraints of his group identity by carving for himself an individual identity as an entrepreneur. He often seems to merge with the proclaimed vision of a “new India”, especially when declaring that he represents “tomorrow”, i.e. the future, as opposed to the circumstances of his birth, which he hopes to relegate to the past. We get a dark, if almost cynical, portraiture of India suffering from growth pains, its newly imported values of liberalization and entrepreneurial success coexisting alongside age-old issues of caste and religious discrimination.
There’s the superficial appearance of real change, but a closer look reveals repetitive patterns: the same way that Balram’s father used to earn a living by ferrying richer people on his rickshaw, Balram does the same with his taxies carrying engineers to their plush offices in Bangalore. The dualism between a class of Indians privileged enough to get educated and score high-paying jobs and another class, which earns its daily bread by serving the former, remains unchanged despite the economic expansion. Adiga’s book has also been adapted into a 2021 film of the same name directed by Ramin Bahrani and starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao, alongside Adarsh Gourav playing the protagonist.