Finding Identity in The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga adopts an epistolary form in The White Tiger, depicting the plight of a low caste servant, trying to escape the physical and mental chains that forge his destiny. Adiga initially presents a protagonist in Balram, who is engaging, despite confessing to horrific crimes. His language, thoughts, and deeds convey his originally good nature. However, this honest nature is also an immense weakness in his transformative journey to freedom as the India Adiga presents is sharply divided into two is sharply divided into two, the Darkness, and the Light. The upper castes reside in the Light, filled with malfeasance and nepotism; a hotbed for corruption; whereas the Darkness hosts the lower castes, filled with poverty and an archaic sense of duty to family. This environment forces Balram to transform to construct his “own” identity.
The polarised realities of India are geographically represented. The Light is found in large cities close to the ocean, such as Bangalore which “is the future” with “one in three new office blocks… being built” there. The Light radiates from the fast-paced social energy and massive wealth of new industries, such as Balram’s own business which boasts “sixteen drivers” and “twenty-six vehicles”. In this rich milieu, entrepreneurial activity, corruption, and social mobility thrive. By illustrating this, Adiga highlights that while the nefarious few who sit in offices inside skyscrapers enjoy the Light of the sun, the Darkness cast by the shadows of these towering edifices engulf the poor. The Darkness is found in inland river villages, particularly along the traditionally sacred northern river system, the Ganga. The Darkness is symbolised as a “Rooster Coop” by Adiga, using zoomorphism to lend animalistic characteristics to people. Roosters in a coop watch one another slaughtered one by one, but are unable or unwilling to rebel and break out of the coop. Similarly, India’s poor see one another crushed by the wealthy and powerful, defeated by the staggering inequality of Indian society, but are unable to escape the same fate. This environment forces Balram to adapt leaving his kind nature for an immoral one. With this, Adiga conveys that to succeed in post-partition India, one must be corrupt.
Born with the name “Munna” (literally meaning boy), and ultimately known as “Ashok Sharma”, Balram goes through a steady transformation from a kind-hearted boy to the animal that “comes only once in a generation”, the White Tiger, constructing his own identity. He begins as a mere child and a peasant in the Darkness, completely unimportant and unloved, and expected to be completely submissive to the will of his family. Forced to drop a lifetime of opportunity without even getting a say in it, he gets a job in a teashop, working with no pride for little pay. After being hired as a driver, he recognizes that his family want to “scoop (him) out from the inside and leave (him) weak and helpless” by using him for monetary gain. Learning this, he rebels, refusing to get married and refusing to dedicate his life to their ends. This signifies a major transition for him, the beginning of his corruption. He blackmails the number one driver into leaving, causing Balram to become the new number one driver, whilst also marking his first malicious act. While he feels some guilt upon doing this, he becomes happier, realizing that his happiness is proportionate to his ruthlessness. The more ruthless he becomes, the stronger his sense of himself as a person becomes, a person that was raised like an animal, made to provide dumbly until he died unceremoniously. Balram needs ruthlessness. He values individuality and freedom more than he does morality. To him freedom is a cause worth dying for, thus it must be a cause worth killing for. Therefore, Adiga conveys that his transformation was not only self-fashioning but also fashioned by his environment.
Transforming into “The White Tiger”, Balram murders Ashok, finally freeing himself from the shackles of the Darkness. Throughout the book, their relationship changes as Balram transforms. In the beginning, Balram looks up to Ashok, seeing his as a respectable man, so he doesn’t cheat him. However, when Ashok forces Balram to take the blame for the traffic incident, it shatters that illusion. This devastates him, feeling betrayed and used. When Pinky Madam leaves Ashok, Ashok becomes corrupt. He starts sleeping aroung and partying, partaking in every sin from gluttony to lust. He sleeps with a Russian actress whilst Balram sits in the car “hoping he’d come running out… screaming ‘Balram, I was on the verge of making a mistake’”. Balram becomes disillusioned with Ashok because of this, losing all respect for him. Ironically, this makes him imitate Ashok, following his corruption by stealing petrol, using the car for himself, using it as a taxi, and by going to corrupt mechanics. Finally, the idea of stealing the red bag emerges. The idea of taking seven-hundred-thousand rupees and be free. The red bag symbolises the blood-stained wealth he will obtain. He sees what he may gain by killing Ashok, his freedom, his ability to create his own identity. Knowing he would lose his family didn’t affect his decision, as to them he was just a resource. The instant Balram murders Ashok with the whiskey bottle, he starts referring to Ashok as an “it”. Using this symbol of wealth as a murder weapon is his final step into the Light. Before, he was a servant, treated like an animal and acting like a piece of furniture. He now has created his “own” identity, although it was mainly fashioned by his surroundings.
Summarily, in The White Tiger, Balram’s journey to create his own identity is largely fashioned by the environment he’s in, rather than his own power. Thus, Adiga conveys how in this India one can only create their own identity to a certain extent, as part of it will be created by their surroundings.
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Aravind Adiga adopts an epistolary form in The White Tiger, depicting the plight of a low caste servant, trying to escape the physical and mental chains that forge his destiny. […]