Throughout Balram's narrative, Adiga constantly exposes the prevalence of corruption throughout all of India's institutions. Schools, hospitals, police, elections, industries and every aspect of government are thoroughly corrupt, while practices such as bribery and fraud are entirely commonplace. Balram's approach to this truth largely involves a deeply cynical humor. However, there is an ugly component to his character arc. In order to escape the "Darkness" and enter into the "Light," Balram must himself become a part of this system. His victory is thus bittersweet; while he has succeeded in elevating his social position, he continues to live in a country paralyzed by corruption, which prevents true progress from taking place. Adiga's ultimate point seems to be that corruption necessarily breeds corruption, unless of course a greater revolution remakes society.
The India described by Balram is in the throes of a major transformation, heralded in part by the advent of globalization. India finds itself at the crossroads of developments in the fields of technology and outsourcing, as the nation adapts to address the needs of a global economy. Balram recognizes and hopes to ride this wave of the future with his White Tiger Technology Drivers business in Bangalore, but this force of globalization has a darker component for him as well. It threatens and disenfranchises those adhering to a traditional way of life, such as his family in Laxmangarh. Hence, he must change who he is in order to compete in this new world. Adiga thus vividly conjures the tension between the old and new India, suggesting that succeeding in this world (as Balram does) requires a flurry of ethical and personal compromises.
Balram frequently discusses the issues of social mobility in the new social hierarchy of India. Having idolized Vijay from childhood, Balram recognizes the possibility of moving up in the world, but has to confront the reality of such movement throughout his story. One of the big issues is how India's social system has changed. Under the caste system, people's fates were predetermined, but they were happy, believing they belonged somewhere. However, the new social structure promises the possibility of social mobility, but actually only offers two social divisions: the rich and the poor. The poor are kept in an eternal state of subservience and servitude to the rich by the mechanism that Balram dubs "The Rooster Coop." However, they are now more unhappy because there is a possibility of social mobility that nevertheless remains out of their grasp. Balram ultimately finds a way to break from the Rooster Coop, but it requires him to compromise his ethics and personality - he has to kill his master and betray his family. That social mobility is a specter captured only through such difficult means is a comment on the unfortunate reality of a world built more on limitations than possibility.
The White Tiger is largely a story of self-fashioning, as Balram undergoes a transformative journey to construct his own identity. Inspired by his childhood hero, Vijay, who also rose from a humble background to achieve success in the upper echelons of Indian society, Balram dedicates himself to self-improvement, so much so that he is willing to destroy who he once was. He sees identity as fluid and malleable, a fact articulated through the many name changes he employs throughout the story. Ultimately, he even chooses a new identity for himself in imitation of his master, calling himself Ashok Sharma. And yet the novel is full of dramatic irony revealing that Balram cannot fully repudiate the person he once was. He remains full of unresolved guilt and provincial superstitions, reminding us that while identity might be entirely fluid, it is also entirely immovable as well.
Ultimately, The White Tiger is a tale about morality, suggesting that morality can be viewed as either rigid or flexible. Balram eventually embraces the latter option. In order to justify murdering Ashok and risking his family's lives, Balram develops an alternate moral system. He reasons that the money he steals from Ashok is rightfully his, since servants are exploited by the rich, and he convinces himself of his exceptionalism as "the white tiger" in order to rationalize his decisions. Believing he is the only one who has truly woken up to the truth of the "Rooser Coop," he feels compelled to change his life. In this sense, Balram has become a version of Nietzche's "ubermensch," or over-man, who believes himself to be above the moral and legal limitations of society. Adiga poses a question through Balram: do we blame a criminal for his decisions, or do we try to understand those decisions as reactions to an overly oppressive and restrictive society? Assuming that a reader does not have a definitive answer, Adiga suggests then that morality is a fluid and unfixed concept.
Pairs and Dualities
The White Tiger abounds with instances of twinned pairs and dualities, each corresponding to one half of a central dichotomy: the rich and the poor halves of India. Balram poses India as broken up into two sections, the "Darkness" and the "Light." Examples of twinned pairs from each of these two halves include: the "men with small bellies" and "men with big bellies;" the hospital where Balram's father dies and the city hospital visited by the Stork; the beautiful blonde prostitute visited by Ashok and the uglier, faux-blonde prostitute hired by Balram; the apartment building in Delhi and its servants quarters below; and the two versions of all markets in India (one for the rich, and a smaller, grimier replica for the servants). The most significant of these twinned pairs is, of course, Ashok and Balram themselves. It is telling that Balram, the narrator, views the world as split into halves. It reveals the extent to which oppression has ruined his worldview.
Another means by which Adiga explores this theme is through the symbolic rearview mirror, which doubles everything through a reflection and hence functions as a conduit for the confrontation between Ashok and Balram. This particular image suggests that identity can be transferred across the divide - one can move from one area to another. Other instances of dualities in the text serve to further highlight the extent of Balram's transformation; for example, the two car accidents (Pinky Madam's hit-and-run and the death of the bicycling boy) demonstrate just how far Balram has come in his quest to become a successful entrepreneur. Balram was once a pawn in the game, whereas in the latter case he has found the power to be a representative of the more fortunate "Light."
The extended Indian family plays an incredibly significant role in the traditional way of life in the Darkness. The family is the core social unit, so all its members are expected to act with selfless devotion to its interests. Though the poor ostensibly view this construct as a strength, Balram comes to see it as another way through which the poor are kept in the "Rooster Coop." Firstly, the expectations of family enforce limitations that can quash individual ambition (as they almost do with Balram). Further, since a servant's disobedience is visited upon his family, servants remain trapped by the whims of their masters. Social mobility becomes impossible. In order to break free and live the life of a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore, a city representing a new India, Balram must sacrifice his family. This conundrum seems to suggest that in order to thrive in the modern world and embrace the potentials of a New India, this traditional attachment to the family must be relinquished in favor of a newfound emphasis on individualism.
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.