“There’s no one else in this 150-square-foot office of mine. Just me and a chandelier above me, although the chandelier 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. Though it’s cool enough at night in Bangalore, I’ve put a midget fan—five cobwebby blades—right above the chandelier. See, when it turns, the small blades chop up the chandelier’s light and flight it across the room. Just like the strobe light at the best discos in Bangalore. This is the only 150-square-foot space in Bangalore with its own chandelier!”
In this passage, Balram introduces his audience to one of his most prized possessions, the chandelier in his office. To Balram, the chandelier, a gaudy physical manifestation of wealth, symbolizes his success at transforming himself from a peasant into a Bangalore entrepreneur. As a particularly opulent source of light, it further represents his escape from the Darkness. By chopping the light into a strobe effect using a fan, Balram provides some insight into his talent for remaking himself. He is exercising a control over light and darkness, symbolizing the way he moved himself from one realm to the other to now straddle both.
However, for all its virtues, the chandelier also represents Balram's inability to ever fully transform himself. The chandelier is laughably out of place in his small office space, and later in the novel, Pinky Madam, a true member of the elite class, remarks that she finds chandeliers to be “tacky” (71). Thus, the chandelier also demonstrates the meaninglessness of Balram’s achievement in the greater scheme of a society that continues to oppress its underclass, as well as Balram’s inability to make a full transition from his past life. His village sensibilities continue to manifest through his lingering guilt and superstitions. No matter how far he rises, he can never know whether he has definitively left the "Rooster Coop" behind. All of these contradictions are captured in the symbol of the chandelier.
“Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well off. But the river brings darkness to India—the black river."
Balram's vision of two Indias forms the central image around which the novel is organized. The most significant of the many dualities explored in the text, the dichotomy between the Light and the Darkness frames Balram's journey. His fervent desire to enter into the "Light" of urban coastal India is the driving force behind the dramatic transformation detailed in his narrative. This passage also suggests an impenetrable barrier; in the same way that the ocean is immovable, so are the Light and Darkness necessarily distinct. That Balram is able to transcend that barrier is evidence of his unique abilities. That he remains uncertain whether he can ever fully be a denizen of the "Light" represents his belief, expressed here, that the separation is beyond any individual's control.
“This mud was holding her back: this big, swelling mound of black ooze. She was trying to fight the black mud; her toes were flexed and resisting; but the mud was sucking her in, sucking her in. It was so thick, and more of it was becoming created every moment as the river washed into the ghat. Soon she would become part of the black mound and the pale-skinned dog would start licking her. And then I understood: this was the real god of Benaras—this black mud of the Ganga into which everything died, and decomposed, and was reborn from, and died into again. The same would happen to me when I died and they brought me here. Nothing would get liberated here."
In this intricately constructed passage, Balram uses gruesome, highly vivid imagery to depict his mother's burial. With disjointed clauses and repetition, Adiga reflects at the level of sentence structure the struggle of the mother's body against the thick mud. The mud of the Ganga River is a potent symbol for the oppressive cycle of repression that traps India's poor in the Darkness. Balram's despair at the thought of being eternally caught in this cycle forms the impetus for his journey of self-improvement. His ability to see symbols in life is largely responsible for his ability to refashion identities (think of the "White Tiger," the chandelier, or the "Rooster Coop"), and he here reveals that he had that instinct for symbolism even as a young boy.
“I swam through the pond, walked up the hill, went into the doorway, and entered the Black Fort for the first time. There wasn’t much around—just some broken walls and a bunch of frightened monkeys watching me from a distance. Putting my foot on the wall, I looked down on the village from there. My little Laxmangarh. I saw the temple tower, the market, the glistening line of sewage, the landlord’s mansions—and my won house, with that dark little cloud outside—the water buffalo. It looked like the most beautiful sight on earth. I leaned out from the edge of the fort in the direction of my village—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. Eight months later, I slit Mr. Ashok’s throat."
The Black Fort, which sits on a hill over Balram's village, serves as a significant symbol in the text, representing Balram's aspirations to escape the "Darkness" into the "Light." He leaves no ambiguity as to what the symbol represents. As a boy, he was too frightened to explore the Fort. However, here, returning to Laxmangarh after having been hired as driver, he not only approaches the Fort, but in fact spits down at his village from that vantage. It is no accident that he had to cross through water to arrive at the Fort, indicating a type of baptism into a new man. He has overcome the fears that limited him as a boy, and thereby paved the the path for his ultimate escape. He makes it clear that escape will later be facilitated both through a repudiation of his family (symbolized by his spitting here) and through his murder of Ashok. Returning later in his narrative to this same image, Balram reveals that he now imagines himself in that moment as a version of the poet Iqbal's Devil, rejecting the creation of God in order to fashion his own identity.
“Here’s a strange fact: murder a man, and you feel responsible for his life—possessive, even. You know more about him than his father and mother; they knew his fetus, but you know his corpse. Only you can complete the story of his life; only you know why his body has to be pushed into the fire before its time, and why his toes curl up and fight for another hour on earth."
The relationship between Balram and Ashok is fluid and volatile, constantly vacillating between love and distrust, respect and hatred, intimacy and distance. Constantly emphasized, however, is the unique bond that exists between the two: they are twinned versions of one another, one from the Darkness and one from the Light. In this passage, Balram expresses his belief that by murdering Ashok, he absorbs and comes to possess the master's identity. In other words, he sees the murder as an almost sacred event, which somewhat allows him to justify the atrocity. In describing this phenomenon, Balram repeats the macabre imagery with which he described his mother's death, which was the first moment in which he realized the oppressive nature of India. By emphasizing the first moment here, Balram further presents the murder as a spiritual event, part of a cycle that exists largely to allow the exceptional "White Tiger" to achieve his potential. Ultimately, the way Balram views the murder can be seen with horror - as he is able to rationalize such a terrible thing - or with a strange respect, since it shows his ability to remake the world into the one he needs it to be.
“In the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat—or get eaten up.”
Interestingly, Balram expresses a degree of nostalgia for the days of the old caste system in India. While the social structure was similarly rigid and people's fates were predetermined, he preferred the orderliness of the old system, which he believes made people happier by ensuring that everyone had a productive place in society. There was no real opportunity for social mobility, so everyone was satisfied. From that perspective, the oversimplified view, that the abolition of the caste system improved the social structure, is made more complicated. Balram argues that this societal shift merely further empowered the rich while trapping the poor in perpetual subservience. Worse, the new system promised the chance for social mobility, which offering no real outlet for it. As a result, the poor remain poor but are now unsatisfied. In this new India, then, the only way to take control of one's social standing and to shape one's fate is to take drastic and often ethically dubious actions, to compromise one's self as Balram does. There is no room for a middle ground - if he wishes to have a 'big belly,' he must destroy the part of himself with a 'small belly.'
“From the start, sir, there was a way in which I could understand what he wanted to say, the way dogs understand their masters. I stopped the car, and then moved to my left, and he moved to his right, and out bodies passed each other (so close that the stubble on his face scraped my cheeks like the shaving brush that I use every morning, and the cologne from his skin—a lovely, rich, fruity cologne—rushed into my nostrils for a heady instant, while the smell of my servant’s sweat rubbed off onto his face), and then he became driver and I became passenger.”
Here, Ashok and Balram share a strange moment of intimacy, wherein Balram wordlessly understands Ashok’s desire to drive the car. Balram describes the fleeting moment in protracted detail, which is highly vivid and sensual in nature. The touching of their bodies, the exchange of scents, and the wordless communication between the pair denotes a high degree of closeness. The fluidity that exists between the two twinned characters, suggested elsewhere in the text, is thus made literal in this moment by an actual instance of physical intimacy and a symbolic interchange of physical positions. Balram's consistent ability to see the world as made of twinned images is largely responsible for his ultimate ability to remake himself, but repudiating who he is in favor of becoming someone else.
“I realized that this tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, foreign-educated man, who would be my only master in a few minutes, when the long whistle blew and this train headed off toward Dhanbad, was weak, helpless, absent-minded, and completely unprotected by the usual instincts that run in the blood of a Landlord. If you were back in Laxamgarh, we would have called you the lamb.”
Though Balram's respect for Ashok occasionally wavers, it is usually quite high. At this moment, however, Balram perceives for the first time that his master is fundamentally weak. Using his usual tendency towards animal imagery, Balram positions himself, the White Tiger, against the helpless Lamb. Once Balram realizes that Ashok lacks the instincts to survive in the "Jungle" of India, his ultimate decision to assert his power over Ashok becomes inevitable. Because he sees the world in terms of fate and natural cycles, a jungle of sorts, Balram recognizes the necessity of conquering his weaker foe so that he can reach his natural potential.
“We came to an enclosure with tall bamboo bars, and there—seen in the interstices of the bars, as it paced back and forth in a straight line—was a tiger. Not any kind of tiger. The creature that gets born only once every generation in the jungle. I watched him walk behind the bamboo bars. Black stripes and sunlit white fur flashed through the slits in the dark bamboo; it was like watching the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film. He was walking in the same line, again and again—from one end of the bamboo bars to the other, then running around and repeating it over, at exactly the same pace, like a thing under a spell. He was hypnotizing himself by walking like this—that was the only way he could tolerate this cage. Then the thing behind the bamboo bars stopped moving. It turned its face to my face. The tiger’s eyes met my eyes, like my master’s eyes have met mine so often in the mirror of the car. All at once, the tiger vanished."
In this scene, Balram confronts a physical manifestation of his inner self, the White Tiger. Encountering this twinned version of himself in one of the novel's many explorations of dualities, he is overwhelmed. The spiritual nature of the encounter is further stressed when he faints and then reawakens, in a type of rebirth. The moment occurs during the psychological upheaval that precedes the murder, and is the final hurdle he must overcome to find the strength for that atrocity. Seeing the majestic, rare creature with whom he so identifies trapped in the cage finally emboldens Balram to embrace his own inner White Tiger in order to triumph over the Lamb, Ashok. Only in this way, he realizes, can he break free of the cage that is the Darkness.
“When the veil is lifted, what will Bangalore be like? Maybe it will be a disaster: slums, sewage, shopping malls, traffic jams, policemen. But you never know. It may turn out to be a decent city, where humans can live like humans and animals can live like like animals. A new Bangalore for a new India. And then I can say that, in my own way, I helped to make New Bangalore.”
Balram ends his narrative by speculating upon the future of India. While much of his story casts the nation in a negative light, emphasizing the near-impossibility of escaping the Darkness and improving one's social standing, Balram's belief in the future potential of Bangalore infuses the tale's conclusion with a note of cautious optimism. However, given the morally dubious underpinnings of his entrepreneurial success, Balram unintentionally adds a layer of darkness here. In thinking of his story as a model for the new India, he suggests that the nation will never become a place where social mobility and dignity can be achieved without upending the established models of morality and society. He was able to remake himself, but Balram is unlikely to remake the world.
The White Tiger Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The White Tiger is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.