The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Breaking out of the Rooster Coop by Dr Jennifer Minter (notes by English Works)

“You are listening to the story of a social entrepreneur” (177).

In The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga adopts an epistolary form, to depict the plight of a low caste servant trying to escape the physical and mental chains that forge his destiny. Balram Halwai writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Mr Wen Jiabao,  that reveal Adiga’s playfully ironic style and reinforces his point that although India pretends to be the world’s largest democracy, there are many similarities with the oppressive Chinese political system. There is little freedom for Balram, who is captured by traditional family bonds, membership of a low caste and a servant-like mentality which makes it almost impossible for him to break out of his servitude. Among the numerous literacy devices employed by Adiga, are the metaphoric references that relate to the Darkness and the Light, the water buffalo and the chandeliers. These symbols contrast the separate but intertwining destinies of master and servant.  Adiga suggests that, symbolically, only a white tiger could possibly find the key to break out of the Darkness, but this comes at a terrible price.

Adiga’s epistolary form reveals Adiga’s playful irony and helps to reinforce his point that there are many similarities between China and India, despite the fact that India pretends to be the world’s largest democracy. Both are depicted as tiger economies that oppress the poor and enrich the masters. Both are depicted as tiger economies that oppress the poor and enrich the masters.  It is a self-serving system that perpetuates oppression and inequality. As in China, there is very little freedom for the poorest people, the servants who struggle with an oppressive and ancient caste system, and an enriched and corrupt ruling class that has all the hallmarks of a dictatorship.

A pervert of nature, Balram depicts himself from the outset as “the white tiger” who has broken out of his position of servitude (and darkness) and joined the ranks of the “entrepreneurs” who (represent Light and Freedom) and who perpetuate a corrupt and self-serving system.  Adiga reveals Balram’s crime at the beginning of the story, and invites readers to focus on the series of events and the conditions that turn Balram into an unwilling murderer. (in there, are any still living, after what I did” (26))  Like any picaresque novel (one that depicts the adventures of a roguish hero), The White Tiger, reveals the story of Balram’s crime from his own personal perspective of one who is surviving on his wits.

Readers explore his journey from a village boy to a “social” and then “business entrepreneur” who establishes a car rental service, White Tiger Drivers, in Bangalore. The letters are presented in a conversational, ironic and sympathetic style that seek to explain and justify the brutal murder of his boss, Mr Ashok, which is presented as the only means for a slave to break the shackles of oppression. However, as the villain transforms into the master and gains respectability, Adiga shows his awakening of conscience and suggests there is a possibility for true moral reform.

The letters: epistolary form and the author’s views and values

Mr Ashok agrees with Pinkey that “there’s only one thing wrong with this place – we have this fucked up system called parliamentary democracy. Otherwise we’d be just like China” (133).

The narrative style enables Adiga to adopt a confessional and personal tone as he divulges his experiences to “Mr Premier”, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao.   The epistolary form, which consists of a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, also reveals Adiga’s playfully ironic style and reinforces Adiga’s point that there are many similarities between China and India, despite the fact that India pretends to be the world’s largest democracy.

Adiga points out that, just as in China, which similarly has a tiger economy,  there is very little freedom in India for the poorest people, the servants.  Those in a position of power, the masters, are generally corrupt and make laws to suit themselves. Therefore the form of Government in India is in many ways just as oppressive and overbearing as any dictatorship.   From a post colonial viewpoint, Adiga also points out that the masters have been enriched, but the poor are still oppressed via an ancient caste system.

“We do have democracy!” There is little freedom and little democracy. In fact, Adiga questions the worth of democracy in a country where the majority live in abject poverty. The author is cynical of India’s pride in its political system which has “democracy” but poor infrastructure and millions doomed to poverty. “If I were making a country, I’d get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy” (80).

When Balram is coerced into signing the declaration of responsibility for the car accident, it is evident that only luck prevents him from going to jail. Adiga points out that many poor people, hundreds of servants, are in jail serving time for their masters.

Whilst the letters appear to be confessional and a true record of his thoughts and feelings, they could be “false” or highly subjective. The series of letters only reflects his own side of his experiences. We do not learn about the masters’ story.   In this regard, Adiga questions the emphasis on capitalism in large economies such as India that shamefully oppress the poor. As the villain transforms into the master, Adiga opens up a space for moral accountability that perhaps he believes is the only thing that might make a difference.

“I was looking for the key for years, but the door was always open”.   

Adiga depicts the metaphoric rooster coop to show the almost impossible task of breaking out of the Darkness without a significant, momentous act. So strong are the ties of the servant that Balram knows that he must commit a desperate act in order to break free.

Family and the Darkness: Balram as victim 

Balram knows that he is in danger of becoming a victim, just like Kishan and just like his father.  Of Kishan he says, “They were eating him alive in there! They would do the same thing to him that they did to Father – coop him out from the inside and leave him weak and helpless, until he got tuberculosis and died on the floor of a government hospital, waiting for some doctor to see him, spitting blood on this wall and that!”.  Balram is constantly pressurised by family to get married because there would be an advantage to the large, poor family.

The characterisation of Balram who is born into a poor family and raised “in the Darkness” shows to what extent one is a victim of caste, family, fortune and fate.

Balram is caught up in the desperate cycle of dehumanising family relationships.  He belongs to the lower caste which consists of “men with small bellies”.  Balram has little opportunity and is captured by his extended family who pressure him to marry so that they can get the dowry. His grandmother tells him, “you’ll do what we want’.

Balram was brought up in a poor family in a rural village called Laxmangarh raised “in the Darkness”.  Adiga frequently makes references to the caste system to suggest that the Indians are imprisoned by their caste which makes it impossible to break free of their “destiny”.  Balram is nameless and does not know his exact age which suggests that his fate has been already set as a person of the lower caste. He was referred to as “Munna” and his teacher later named him “Balram….. the sidekick of the god Krishna”…

Adiga constantly draws attention to the traditional family ties that act as a noose around his neck and weigh on him so heavily that he feels constantly drawn back into the abyss.

Adiga suggests that the heartless forces of Darkness are likely to devour him, just as they did his mother and father.  The Ganges, presented as the spiritual centre of Old India, swallows up Balram’s dead mother’s body in its “black mud”. This suggests that such spiritual values are being undermined by the oppressive and corrupt system in India. Similarly, his father lives and dies like a beast of burden on the hospital floor.  Balram is pressured to marry which he knows will tie him forever to family.  (His father complains that, “my whole life I’ve been treated like a donkey”.)  Later, Balram rails against his father who “has raised me to live like an animal”. “Why do all the poor live amid such filth, such ugliness?”. (128). His teeth are discoloured from the paan, (123) which he had chewed for years. The poor are always spitting and their teeth ugly and discoloured.

“The villagers are so religious in the Darkness” : The poor live and die like animals

It’s as if the poor are raised as servants; he rails against his father who “has raised me to live like an animal”. Why do all the poor live amid such filth, such ugliness?”. (128). His teeth are discoloured form the paan, (123) which he had chewed for years; the poor are always spitting. Their teeth are ugly and discoloured.

The rich-shaw pulling father’s death of tuberculosis captures the plight of those in the Darkness who are doomed to a life of misery. A victim of both political and medical corruption, one condition of the doctor’s appointment is that he passes on a third of his salary to his corrupt supervisors and makes up the difference at a private hospital. The father who dies like a beast of burden is just a statistic in a political game that dispenses with the lives of the poor because it is expedient to do so. Adiga devises a role play between the Muslim man at the village hospital and the ignorant son, Balram, to explain how the doctor ticks off the “imaginary ledger” in the village hospital to certify that the poor have been treated and cured. Sarcastically, Balram states that the “government ledger no doubt accurately reported, my father was permanently cured of his tuberculosis”.

The father’s body was discarded and is treated no better or worse than that of the animals such as the goat and the cat that roam in and out of the hospital.

Family ties and the water buffalo

The water buffalo is the “master of the house”. The fattest one survives because the household is dependent upon the buffalo for their survival. One is the “greediest of the lot” (17; 20)  Granny’s says the water buffalo will get fatter after the rain. She urges Balram to get married, which is to think of the family as well. The water buffalo is a symbol of their prosperity. (163).  (When he realises he has been cheated by the blond prostitute, he thinks about how many “water buffaloes you could have bought for that much money” (200).  Later the buffaloes are walking without the master (219)

“You’ll do what we want”

Balram is pressured to marry so that the family can get a dowry from the girl’s family. But weddings also impoverish the family because the boys have to go to work early. With Kishan’s wedding, they make sure they “screw the girl’s family hard” (42)  Balram experiences the tension between loyalty to oneself and to one’s family. When he returns home to the family after working with Mr A. he knows that his cousin “would bugger me badly”, because he hadn’t sent money home for 2 months (72)  But because of his high status he gets more “attention than the water buffalo” (72).  According to Adiga, “loyalty to family is virtually a test of moral character”. “You were rude to your mother this morning”, would be, morally, the equivalent of “you embezzled funds from the bank this morning”.

The poor servants: victim of the rooster coop mentality

Balram understand his role the way “dogs understand their masters”.

The rooster coop analogy captures the extent of the servant’s oppression and displays their extent to which they are conditioned to accept the servitude. Up to “99.9 percent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market”. (Fifth Night).   According to Adiga, the chickens have been conditioned to perpetual servitude which sustains the system; a “servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse” (149)  In this regard, the murder itself becomes a personal act of retribution on behalf of his father, who was left to die pitilessly on the hospital floor. It is also an act of collective revenge on behalf of India’s servants.

As Balram also notes, he has been completed conditioned to see himself as a servant. “Because the desire to be a servant has been bred into me; hammered into my skull; nail after nail and poured into my blood the way sewage and industrial poison are poured into Mother Ganga” (165).  He also knows that his own humiliation often helps Mr Ashok repair his quarrels with Pinkey Madam. Balram’s English accent “maal”, for mall is always a source of delight (124) as is his pronunciation of pizza. Mr Ashok makes Balram dress up as a maharaja with a red turban and dark cooling glasses and serves them food in this costume. (130).

Adiga foregrounds the metaphor of the rooster coop to show how the poor are conditioned to think and behave like servants, which makes it difficult for them to break out of the coop.  Adiga explains to the Chinese Premier, that so perfectly are the poor conditioned, and so perfectly does the mentality of servitude operate, that there is no need for the secret police.  (This is an allusion to the role of secret police in many dictatorships or corrupt governments.) “Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police. That’s because we have the coop” (149).   the chickens have been conditioned to perpetual servitude which sustains the system; a “servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse” (149)  The Rooster Coop was doing its work; servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs. The Rooster coop mentality:

Adiga shows that servants like Balram have been so conditioned to accept their servitude and their position of darkness that it takes a freakish and extremely brutal act like that of murder to break the oppressive shackles of servitude. (There are also very serious consequences.) This is because the metaphoric rooster coop is “guarded from within” and the servants become their own worst enemies. For example, Balram instinctively returns the “missing” coin and massages his master’s feet because he believes it is a failure of duty “if I let you do it yourself” (163) As Balram notes, he has been completely conditioned to see himself as a servant, which has been “hammered into my skull; nail after nail and poured into my blood” (165).  Likewise, like a dog on his hind legs, Balram searches for the rupee on the floor of the car and knows that his job depends upon its return. Unable to find it, he says, “I took a rupee coin out of my shirt pocket, dropped it on the floor of the car, picked it up and gave it to the Mongoose” ( 117) who squeals with “childish delight”.  (“He sucked his teeth .. as if it were the best thing that had happened to him all day” (117)

In this regard, Adiga uses the imagery of the rooster coop to reinforce his view that the system is self-perpetuating because the servant spontaneously and unquestioningly accepts his servitude.  Up to “99.9 percent of us are caught in the  Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market”. (Fifth Night). There is no need for the secret police. “Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police. That’s because we have the coop” (149).  As Adiga points out, the master conditions the servant to accept his downtrodden place (117) as a reflection of his perpetual acceptance of the darkness.

This leads to ambivalent emotions: “Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love – or do we love them behind a façade of loathing? (160).

Adiga’s conversational style and whimsical tone reflect his ironic journey from rags to riches, from servant to master which involves the murder of his master, and the callous and unavoidable destruction of his entire family.

Depicted as a metaphoric white tiger, Balram realises that the murder of his boss is the only way to escape the Darkness to which he is doomed because of his desperate and burdensome family ties and his membership of a low caste.  Balram says that the murder helps him fulfil his father’s wish that his son “live like a man”, taking back what Ashok had stolen from him, and breaking out of the Rooster Coop.

Blurring the boundaries:

Balram begins small acts of subterfuge in an attempt to live and act like the Master. He buys the T-shirt and walks into the mall (“You’re not allowed in), Hey! That man is a paid driver! What’s he doing in here?”).  “It was my first taste of the fugitive’s life” (128).   His capacity to cross borders is also evident in his deceptive attitude towards Ram Persad. He steals Ram Persad’s secret in order to better betray him, which foreshadows the murder of Mr Ashok. Persad has to hide his religion as a Muslim to get a job (91) and once this has been revealed Balram usurps  his job with impunity.   “What a miserable life he’s had, having to hide his religion, his name, just to get a job as a driver – and he is a good driver, no question of it” (93). In an act of subterfuge, the White Tiger gains his job by exposing his Muslim faith.

“Someone in his family was going to make it out of the Darkness and into New Delhi” . He becomes the classic white tiger – only a white tiger can break out of the coop.

Alternatively, Mr Ashok at times shows signs of pity, scarring him as a marked man.  Pangs of guilt are evident when he sees Balram’s mosquito-blown hovel. He knows that his master’s lifestyle is unjust, but he does not have the courage to change it. The irony is that he trusts Balram because “he’s from home”.

The White Tiger: a freak of nature

Adiga therefore suggests that it takes a metaphoric White Tiger, or a perverted freak of nature, to break out of the coop and expose his family to destruction.

If he once returned the master’s rupee, he soon realises that he must strangle his master if he is to break out of the Darkness and his constant servitude.  He kills Mr Ashok by smashing his head with the Johnny Walker Bottle and then by piercing his neck “the way the Muslims kill their chickens” which is a figurative reference to Balram’s ability to break out of the coop.  Thereby he fulfils his destiny as The White Tiger who is also a “pervert of nature”, a “freak”.  As Balram points out, such an animal would be capable of undermining his master and taking the money, but this would also involve the destruction of his entire family.  Therefore, such a person would be a moral pervert and freak.

Balram contemplates two possible reasons for the murder. He kills him because the master could recover and call the police, but he is also taking his revenge in advance because he knows that his own family will suffer a terrible price.   When the Stork’s son’s “lifeblood splurted into my eyes” he knew that he was a free man.

 “I’ve made it. I’ve broken out of the coop!”

Balram breaks out of the Darkness (the rooster coop) and enters the Light. However, he becomes like his corrupt Masters. He becomes a “victim” of the “brown paper bag” system.

Adiga criticises the Masters who rule India’s political system and oppress the multitudes through their system of corruption.  The masters rule with impunity and lack a conscience, which often spells political ruin in India.

Therefore, although Balram transitions to the Light, Adiga suggests that this comes at a price. In many ways Balram sacrifices his humanity and his compassion.  Adiga shows that it is almost impossible to break out of the “rooster coop” without compromising one’s dignity and reputation.  Although he now enjoys his own chandeliers that symbolise light, they also symbolise corruption and shameless wealth.

Accordingly, Adiga sets up a comparison between Balram’s former masters and his role as a business entrepreneur. If Mr Ashkok is typical of those owners who have been pilfering the spoils of India and “taking coal for free from the government mines”, then Balram also becomes one of those corrupt masters who bribe the policemen to achieve their business goals.

Balram becomes like his corrupt bosses transferring “brown bags” of money to officials and realises that he is always at their mercy.  (metaphor of chandelier) Cynically, Balram comments that “he is growing a belly at last” because he is using the system to enrich himself.  Because he is like the Stork, he has “switched sides”. He is “one of those who cannot be caught in India.”    However, he knows that because of the system he could also come unstuck at any moment.

The All Powerful Masters

The Stork’s family is typical of those who benefit from corruption. As the all-powerful and corrupt “Great Socialist”, a symbol of the perversely democratic Indian system, tells the Stork, “you’ve got it (the scam) going because I let it happen. You were just some little village landlord when I found you – I brought  you here – I made you what you are today”. He makes him pay a “million and a fucking half“ to continue (88)   The Great Socialist humiliated all our masters: “that’s why we kept voting him back in”  Ashok is annoyed that they are being treated as if “we’re his slaves” (89)

The chandelier becomes a symbol of wealth, status and corruption as well as the freedom to operate above the law.  (Mr Ashok knows his father “loves chandeliers”) and Balram writes his letters under the chandelier. “There’s no one else in this 150-square-foot office of mine” which is unique because it is the only office in Bangalore with a chandelier. It has a “personality of its own. It’s a huge thing, full of small diamond-shaped glass pieces, just like the ones they used to show in the films of the 1970s” and functions like the “strobe light in the best discos in Bangalore”.

After his crime, Balram realises that he has lost his family, and all he has is the chandelier (97).  “It makes me happy to see a chandelier” because they control his phobic-fear of lizards.  Likewise, Mr Ashok realises that without family, a man is nothing” (161) and romanticises the image in the slums of a silhouetted the “perfect” family huddled by the golden lamp.  “The intimacy seemed so complete – so crushingly complete”.

Also, Adiga suggests that Balram becomes like his previous role model, the notorious bus driver. Vijay represents the metaphoric ray of sunlight (or the Light) that often breaks through in Laxmangarh (101).  Vijay earns a uniform and a pay check and becomes the envy of others.

Balram notes, “I wanted to be like Vijay” (26) who wears a white Nehru cap, and had “rings of solid gold on eight of his fingers”.

Vijay is typical of those like the master who benefit from corrupt business practices. He tells the Stork to give them “a million and a half”.  Vijay claims, “you’ve got a good scam going here – taking coal for free from the government mines … You’ve got it going because I let it happen.”  He also points to the Stork’s rise to power: “You were just some little village landlord when I found you – I brought you here – I made you what you are today; and by God, you cross me, and you’ll go back there into that village.”

Balram is often present when the master hands over the “brown package” of money. In this world of material success, relationships are reduced to commodities and people become indispensable.  Pinky kills the worthless “small, black thing” and the masters seek to cover up the crime with Balram’s assistance.

Balram, too, is aware of the terrible sin he has committed against his family and he suffers a great deal of guilt.  In many ways, he creates a coop and “darkness” of his own making.   He, like the Stork, will always be at the mercy of corrupt government officials who indirectly control his choices and career. “You can give the police all the brown envelopes and red bags you want, and they might still screw you. A man in a uniform may one day point a finger at me and say, Time’s up, Munna”.

In Bangalore, Balram has sixteen drivers working for him and all the trappings of wealth such as the big chandelier, the silver Macintosh laptop, the SUVs and the “paid-off policeman. “All of them belong to me – Munna.  Once I was a driver to a master, but now I am a master of drivers”. As he states, he is the perfect White Tiger who “keeps no friends”.  After the hit-and-run accident, the police are typically bribed and the offer to change the number plates and substitute one of their battered cars.   (the symbol of the chandelier)

As a reflection of his authority, Balram complains about the police as the rich do, and knows that it will cost him a considerable amount of money in bribes to keep the accident out of the press. Typically the police will substitute a car, “we keep battered cars for this purpose here”, says the Assistant Commissioner.

The accidents: a space of moral responsibility

Adiga parallels the two hit-and-run car accidents to show a difference between the mentalities of the corrupt businessmen in India, and the sensitive compassion displayed by the American wife, Pinky Madam. Balram’s heightened sensitivity and compassion also reflects Adiga’s view that Indian businessmen must change by showing moral accountability.

Pinky Madam who is the only one with a conscience hits the “black thing” and Mr Ashok and Balram agree that was just a dog to downplay the murder (139). Balram is framed for murder: the jails of Delhi are full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid middle-class masters.” We have left the villages, but the masters still own us, body, soul and arse” (145) (We live in the world’s greatest democracy. “What a fucking joke”.    He is assured, when it suits, “you’re part of the family” (141) and is encouraged to sign the letter testifying to his criminal act (143). Adiga notes that this happens to drivers in Delhi every day. They take responsibility for the crimes of their masters and often languish in smutty prisons for their act of servitude and loyalty.   In this regard, the jails of Delhi are “full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid middle-class masters.”  “As loyal as a dog”, Balram imagines that he will also end up in Tihar Jail serving the master’s crime.  Although the servants have left the villages they are still owned “body, soul and arse” by their masters. With regards to the “forced confession”, the judges are also complicit. They take bribes; they are “in the racket too”.

Pinky Madam and Mr Ashok realise from the green cloth that the “black thing” is one of the people who live under the “flyovers and bridges” with 8-10 children who will not be missed and who will not report the crime to the police. Sworn to complete secrecy, Balram wears a “contented smile that comes to one who had done his duty by his master even in the most difficult of moments” (140).  Foreshadowing Balram’s later response to the second accident, Pinky Madam wants to “find the family of the child and give them compensation” which is not the “way we do it in the village”. Rather the employers seek to protect their reputation and business interests.

As the villain transforms into the master, Adiga opens up a space for moral accountability that perhaps he believes is the only thing that might make a difference.

In the second hit-and-run accident, Balram is in a position of power and authority and takes responsibility for the death of the boy who was hit on a bicycle.  Balram sympathises with the driver, Mohammed Asif, because he knows that drivers just follow orders.  He tells the policeman, “I am the owner of this vehicle. Your fight is with me, not with this driver. He was following my orders, to drive as fast as he could. The blood is on my hands, not his.” (264) In many ways, he shows that he has developed a conscience. Adiga makes the point that masters should exercise their position of authority and take responsibility. (He seeks to make amends for his past and gives the woman 25,000 rupees and offers her other son a job as a driver.) The father notes, that at least he was “man enough to come”.

In this regard, his actions reflect those of Pinky Madam. In contrast to Mr Ashok, she wants to find the child’s family and pay compensation.  However, in this case, there is no place for a conscience in India and she scurries back to America. Mr Ashok is told to better “control that wife of yours”.

To some extent, there are signs that Balram may enjoy a brighter future if he takes responsibility for his actions and starts the long process towards regaining his humanity.  Adiga parallels the two car accidents to show how individuals must accept responsibility for their transgressions/crimes. Whilst Balram is doomed to loneliness and isolation because of his material ambitions, his ability to take responsibility for his actions perhaps paves the way for a new system of family. He tells Mr Jiabao that he is ‘ready to have children now”.   This act becomes an allegory of modern India, which the author believes must start to provide a more humane solution to the millions of servants imprisoned by the “rooster coop” and shamelessly corrupt bosses.

See: “The metaphoric rooster coop: the key to servitude”