The Lonely Smell of Success: The Dark Creature Inside The White Tiger
The modern world revolves around the notion of the individual — ideas of self-determination, free will, and autonomy dictate how people live their lives today. Thus, what means will individuals undertake to obtain something which they cannot have? Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger explores these questions and suggests a startling assertion: amorality is an institutionalized philosophy in the modern world because an individual must abandon semblances of humanity to be deemed successful. This article construes The White Tiger as a warning about today’s flawed society, asserting that not all human lives are worth the same because people hold within themselves dark tendencies against each other. Furthermore, not all human lives suffer the same because reciprocity has no worth in an individualistic society.
In the 21st century, the idea of economic inequality has posed more significant concerns for countries like India, which receive the scraps of Westernization. As much as these nations attempt to be in sync with the Western world, globalization only makes more apparent the stratification between social classes: the rich reside in a city upon a hill, the impoverished starve, and what is left is a country hungry for egalitarianism. In his acclaimed novel The White Tiger, author Aravind Adiga delves into the growing Indian class struggle by elucidating how today’s supposedly civilized times beget savagery amongst humans. Adiga explores the transformation of Balram Halwai, a man from the small hamlet of Laxmangarh who leaves his poor community to take on a job as a driver for Ashok Sharma’s affluent Delhi family. However, as the city’s corruption degrades Balram’s innocence, he realizes it is not honest effort but rather dishonest effort that brings about successful ends. Balram’s murder of Ashok presents a reversal in the master-slave hierarchy and signals something sinister: the individualism required by today’s capitalism requires indifference to other human lives. Those born with hearts mature with bellies because there is no place for empathy in a society devoid of warmth. Adiga also illustrates that there is a consuming darkness between the upper and lower classes because, in an unequal world, it is self-gratifying to witness other people suffer.
What makes the modern world flawed?
In his writing, Adiga alludes to the jungle to assert that accountability does not exist in the wild. Likewise, there is no accountability in Balram’s world because each creature is out to save themselves. People are better off placing the blame on a lesser individual. The Indian highways, which appear to be India’s salvation toward modernization, come to represent the bloodthirsty nature of individualism as collateral lives are killed and even forgotten to save the skin of the ambitious. An unidentified man is killed along a road by one of Balram’s drivers. After the brother of the man killed demands for an F.I.R. to be recorded, the police officer states, “See, at the time of the accident, your brother’s bicycle had no working lights. That is illegal, you know. There are other things that will come out. I promise you, things will come out” (145). The rich-poor hierarchy is maintained because the upper classes can deflect problems to peripheral lives and to those who do not provide money to the capitalist fervor of India. The police may at least appear to uphold the law, but justice is never served for those seeking it. Like the jungle, the bureaucracy is its own wild construct because it is utilized and sought after not because it is noble to perform public service, but because it is practical at solidifying those at the bottom to the bottom. Despite there being outwardly civilized government structures, such as the police, there is no end to Indian inequality because the individuals themselves remain feral. No one is interested in taking responsibility for the people around them.
Oppressors like Balram are also never genuinely interested in achieving communal equality simply because it is easier to live above social norms and the law. The true winners throughout the novel are the judges, those like Balram or the police, who can place the lives of other individuals into the abyss of the Darkness. After the police officer drives away the dead man’s brother, Balram states, “The assistant commissioner slapped his belly. ‘I’ve got every pressman in this town in here.’ Now was the time to smile, and say thanks, and sip the hot coffee he had offered me; now was the time to chat with him about his sons—they’re both studying in America … and nod and smile and show him my clean, shining, fluoridated teeth” (146). Balram sees that the dead man’s brother’s misfortune comes to his own advantage. It becomes an opportunity to reaffirm his association with Westernization, to imply a culture of false refinement and untouchability at the top of society even though Balram himself is a “half-baked” citizen (15). While neither the police officer nor Balram may be fully Westernized, they understand Westernization’s value as a status symbol in a relatively backward India; it makes them bigger than they are. A hunger for power, equated to one’s belly, corrupts Balram’s peers not just to sin, but also commit the same sins again to endear themselves over the people around them. In an otherwise pitiful and impoverished Indian society, the police officer continues to have a belly, and Balram maintains that belly through his illicit bribes. Therefore, Balram displays that life is not a meritocracy; one’s place in society comes solely through ruthlessness and the ability to manipulate others towards ulterior goals of personal power. India’s capitalist rise provides a platform to achieve those goals and drive out unwanted competition.
Adiga also asserts that men within the rut of capitalism are faceless, meaning that any man can abandon their morals and rise to be a master. This amorality leaves people apathetic to each other in Balram’s world. When discussing his wanted poster, Balram states how his portrait was “transferred onto the computer screen, reduced to pixels, just an abstract idea of a man’s face… He could be half the men in India” (27). While Balram may be shown to be degenerate compared to other men, people like him are products of the modern age and can be remembered in testaments of human development such as technology.
Meanwhile, other lower individuals are left to rot away in the Darkness. Furthermore, the evil act stoically; people like Balram choose not to humanize themselves because it leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by others. The idea that emotion is weakness is strengthened when Balram sees his master’s eyes in his rearview mirror and states, “I saw the most unexpected emotion. Pity” (63). While Balram may have largely had deference to previous masters, such as the Mongoose or the Stork, witnessing Ashok’s show of emotion is a major upheaval in his perception; his masters are not morally and socially superior compared to him.
Balram realizes that he can also achieve greatness. Through the revelation that his masters are imperfect, Balram plays on Ashok’s emotions to maintain his “big, trusting baby’s smile” (114). The culmination of Balram’s arc with his master’s murder helps show that Balram is unable to fight against his master without transforming into a master himself. Balram is faceless to others because he sees himself above human connection; he cannot stoop to the level of his peers’ sentimentalism.
Fundamentally, the interactions between Ashok and Balram illustrate that goodwill or forgiveness cannot exist because individuals cannot see each other as equals in an unequal society. Ashok states, “I’m sick of the food I eat, Balram. I’m sick of the life I lead. We rich people, we’ve lost our way. Balram. I want to be a simple man like you, Balram” (114). After he eats food that could “feed a whole family, or one rich man,” Balram smiles and thinks, “I like eating your kind of food too” (114). What is tragic about Ashok is that his ability to form social connections is incompatible with a jungle that vehemently rejects the notion of friendship amongst predators. His best qualities are not enough because he fails to recognize that not all human lives are made equal in Indian society. He needs to leech off the meal of an entire family to satiate his own hunger and fails to see that Balram is left alone to ruminate on his own conspiracies. For Balram, capitalism is a devastating force because it presents to him items that he cannot have access to; his eventual murder of Ashok is a representation of that anguish.
How do individuals respond to an unjust society?
In effect, capitalism brings out the darkness within both Ashok and Balram because it is not equality that makes people happier in a capitalist society. Instead, people desire to be an oppressor rather than a comrade because it is more individualistic to work solely for oneself. The color black is a metaphor for that darkness, or moral corruption, that must come with economic success. For example, Ashok works in “a rotten business, coal” (64). The book market of Darya Ganj contains “thousands of dirty, rotting, blackened books — Technology, Medicine, Sexual Pleasure, Philosophy, Education, and Foreign Countries” (120). When Balram kills his master, he uses a “good, strong bottle, Johnnie Walker Black—well worth its resale value” bottle as the weapon (135). Each of these symbols of development is described as dark because dirty methods must be utilized to achieve a clean result in society. Opportunities such as education or a job are not merely ways to improve the self. Instead, they are a means to insinuate superiority over less fortunate individuals. That is why India transforms into a reckless jungle. When dictating to Wen Jiabao, Balram states, “Isn’t it likely that everyone who counts in this world … has killed someone or other on their way to the top? … All I wanted was the chance to be a man — and for that, one murder was enough” (150). Balram becomes a feral predator because to achieve success means to tie loose ends through total measures. As a member of the Darkness entering the Lightness, Balram falls victim to that tragedy because he needs dirty methods such as violence and deceit to create a better life for himself.
Above all, Adiga presents a warning about capitalism by showing there is a cost when people perform sins to get ahead at the expense of other humans: it begets loneliness. Individualism invites people to be lonely because it prioritizes the self while denouncing the collective.
Importantly, human connection can become obsolete when the opportunity for a better life arises. After climbing up the Black Fort to view his village of Laxmangarh, Balram states, “I saw the temple tower, the market, the glistening line of sewage, the landlords’ mansions—and my own house… [It] looked like the most beautiful sight on earth… and then I did something too disgusting to describe to you. Well, actually, I spat. Again and again. And then, whistling and humming, I went back down the hill” (28). Balram’s visit to the Black Fort represents a Mephistophelian exchange, one that revokes his humanity to look down upon his otherwise pathetic existence. What is beautiful to Balram is not the aesthetic quality of Laxmangarh but its mediocrity. Lined with sewage, Laxmangarh is run down and institutionalized amongst the confines of an invisible caste system comprising the landlord and commoner. Balram sees no good in attaching himself to his roots because it prevents him from seeking more lavish luxuries, whether it be girls with golden hair or “preposterous chandeliers” (2). Other people are an obstacle to Balram’s reaching his goals.
Individualism transforms people into sadistic animals
In the wake of all these transgressions, the most terrifying aspect of Balram’s development into a full-fledged predator is that he finds pleasure in his own self-interest. Balram is content with India’s sadism because he believes it is more enjoyable to see only himself at the top presiding over those lesser than him. When visiting a local market, Balram states, “I bought my first toothpaste that night. I got it from the man who usually sold me paan; he had a side business in toothpastes that canceled out the effects of paan… As I brushed my teeth with my finger, I noticed what my left hand was doing: it had crawled up to my groin without my noticing” (75). Balram was originally a representation of anonymous lives who inhabit the lower depths, with paan-stained red teeth, dirty clothes, and a lackluster education. Yet once allowed to metamorphose like a higher-class citizen, he reacts psychosexually; he is sexually enthralled by the mere prospect of living as a more substantial man. These sexual connotations continue as Balram discusses the egregious subjects of murder, rape, and revenge of the Murder Weekly magazines, outlets for servants who like to “slit their masters throats” (64). Adiga illustrates how social position can be so ingrained within one’s unconscious that it can attack the very soul of a person’s existence.
For Balram, sexual power is associated with societal power and is reflected in other people, such as the fat politician, who consorts with the exotic, such as the “Ukrainian student” (105). At the same time, limited sexual power is associated with lower societal positions. Those in the Rooster Coop are sexually restricted as “Kishan’s [arranged] marriage took place a month after the [mother’s] cremation” (32). While the fat politician, a man of influence, may be able to participate in a modernized world by interacting with Western women, archaic social constructs like arranged marriage are weaponized in Kishan’s society to keep him backward. Each individual falls into the roles their society assigns them to. Thus, the social hierarchy is exemplified to be a wholly artificial construct because predators like the fat politician are the ones who are allowed to reproduce predators, while the more penurious, like Kishan, act as prey and are forced to intermingle with other prey.
Balram learns to connect his sexuality with his societal position. When asked how big he can think, Balram states, “I took my hands off the wheel and held them wider than an elephant’s cock. ‘That big, sister-fucker!’ I love my start-up … but honestly, I’ll get bored of it sooner or later. I’m a first-gear man, Mr. Premier. In the end, I’ll have to sell this start-up to some other moron—entrepreneur, I mean—and head into a new line” (150). Balram equates his business to animalistic sexual desire because that is what capitalism is inherently. Business is a means to eat up the competition, continuously expand, and pass on the bloodline. That line lives on with Dharam, who represents the next generation of white tigers learning to be a “little blackmailing thug” (149). Adiga’s tale is optimistic for Balram’s line yet pessimistic for Indian society. His rise depicts how sadism is systematic throughout history because injustice must always exist so the top 1% can continue to be relevant.
Adiga poses questions on whether humanity has progressed at all since the birth of civilization. While the globalized world may seem more sophisticated, the rich and the poor still choose to be insulated from one another because neither side is interested in the other’s well-being. Lives are structured in such a way that intermingling between the classes never occurs; slaves live amongst slaves and are taught to be happy with half as much while the wealthy reside in lofty high-rises. However, when these two worlds collide, and people finally become exposed to the amenities afforded by the modern age, individuals like Balram can become capable of unforgivable sins to attain those luxuries. People cannot be happier together in Balram’s society simply because they are not happier with themselves — there is always another economic or social hurdle to cross. Thus, savagery is a virtue because it is both necessary and satisfying for individuals like Balram to act wrongfully against other humans to meet one’s own ends. While Adiga suggests a despondent pessimism in The White Tiger, what the novel ultimately unravels into a tragedy, not because the oppressor acts sinfully to attain a better life but because that same oppressor can sleep well after having sinned.
Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2008. Print.