EN 4262 - The White Tiger Seminar Notes

Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger (TWT) very much a cause celebre – on the one hand (like GST) it won the Man Booker, and was seen by many (especially critics and readers outside India) as a gritty and unflinching expose of underclass life in India.  Vikas Swarup’s 2005 Q & A also does this, or Indra Sinha’s 2007 Animal’s People about the underclass suffering in the aftermath of the Bhopal chemical disaster – but those and other slum novels have a much more sentimentalizing and romanticizing quality, interventions and happenstances ensure that things generally work out all right. Vikram Chandra’s 2006 Sacred Games was one of the first notable crime/thriller novels in Indian Anglophone writing, and also had its share of slumdwellers etc, but was a much more epic novel with elements of the historical/partition novel, the James-Bond international thriller, and a diptych narrative with cop and criminal, all of which dilute the sinister/unpleasant slum/crime elements in a way that TWT does not.  For that matter, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had more than its share of beggars and slumdwellers too, but all mediated by a fantastical, magic realist tone that seemed to distance much of the suffering and misery).  TWT stood out for being much more ready to focus on poverty, misery and suffering without a redemptive story line, or fantastical elements.  It was also perhaps the first Indian Anglophone novel to feature an anti-hero as the protagonist and main character.  TWT may with some justification be seen as the precursor of other unameliorated social realist slum novels such as Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (2012), Tarun J. Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins, and of course Adiga’s later work like Between the Assassinations and Last Man in Tower.  i.e. in many ways it is the (convenient) starting point for Indian Anglophone poverty porn, detective noir, antihero fiction.


Narrative Form

The novel’s narrative form conveys much of what is distinctive about the novel, distinguishing it from other Indian slum novels, caste tragedies, etc.

1.   Narrator: unreliable, sardonic, unredeemable, perhaps even unbelievable.  As has often been pointed out, it is hardly credible that an uneducated Indian rural boy could narrate with the kind of subtle mastery and irony of Balram.  His cold-blooded narration of his sins – especially the part where he says he has no nightmares or regrets about killing Ashok or consigning his family to retributive death, and says that if anything, he has nightmares about not taking his chance and killing Ashok – is often hard to accept at face value, and sounds more like an extreme gambit to justify his actions, than an accurate reflection of his emotional/psychological and moral state.  This odd fit may be the result of a cultural/textual clash: trying to fit a Machiavellian, revenger figure into the context of India’s rural poor.  (The traditional literary treatment of such would perhaps be the communal riot, the gang rape, alcoholism, petty theft – perhaps gangsterism, in all cases usually leading to arrest, imprisonment, death.  Certainly nothing as slick, thoughtful and dissembling as Balram’s career).

            Not just the thoughtfulness of his criminal career, but his business and money acumen as well: he is as much business strategist as criminal mastermind:


            In the end, I’ll have to sell this start-up to some other moron – entrepreneur, I mean – and head into a new line.  I’m thinking of real estate next.  You see, I’m always a man who sees ‘tomorrow’ when others see ‘today.’  The whole world will come to Bangalore tomorrow.  Just drive to the airport and count the half-built glass-and-steel boxes as you pass them.  Look at the names of the American companies that are building them.  And when all these Americans come here, where do you think they’re all going to sleep?  On the road?


Anywhere there’s an empty apartment, I take a look at it, I wonder, How much can I get from an American for this in 2010?  If the place has a future as the home of an American, I put a down payment on it at once. (p. 274)


This has all the American business-speak we would expect of someone with Balram’s pro-Western sympathies (“TEN SECRETS OF BUSINESS SUCCESS!”, p. 4) – except where did he learn it from?  If it’s so easy to pick all these things up, why don’t other poor Indians from the “darkness” do it – even to a lesser extent, if they don’t have rich masters to rob and kill?

            The way to read Balram is precisely as a “monster” (p. 270) – not in the sense of someone inhumanely cruel, but rather in the etymological sense of being exceptional (even freakishly so), something to be displayed (Latin “monstrare”) precisely for his exceptional quality.  He has to be read as a distillation of all the anger, class hatred, cunning and desire in the Indian underclasses – as their symbolic embodiment, not as an actual individual.  Unbelievable and unreliable as an actual (realist character) individual, he can however be read as an embodiment (realist social) of class struggle and oppression.  In some ways like Emile Zola’s “naturalism” or some aspects of 19th C historical melodrama (Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, some aspects of Dickens), TWT exaggerates and stretches plot credibility (even wildly so) to make an arguably realist social point.

2.   Epistolary form: borrows from other epistolary novels like Frankenstein, Pamela?  The sense, in common with many other such novels: who is the reader?  Does the letter ever ‘arrive’?  Is it being intercepted (so to speak)?  What happens when such a communication is interrupted in such a manner? 

In the early era of the novel (late 18th and early 19th C), the unsettling reader/recipient effect of the epistolary form could arguably be said to reflect both the unsettled genre of the novel itself (i.e. before the formation of a large and stable MC readership), as well as the unsettled social conditions of England before the 1850s or thereabouts.  A similar social condition seems to obtain in India, and Adiga’s narrative form allows him to reflect some of these certainties.

            Firstly, Balram’s ostensible recipient Wen Jiabao is not only a reflection of India’s long-running anxieties about and competition with China, but also a deliberately (on both the novel’s and Balram’s parts) grandiose and unrealistic recipient.  The letters are not meant to arrive, to find an appropriate audience, so much as to make a point about India vis-ŕ-vis China – and implicitly, the rest of the world too.  We might say that there is a deliberately playful missing-the-reader game going on: by deliberately over-stepping in terms of the ostensible reader/recipient, the novel might be abnegating the responsibility of finding an appropriate readership – who finally reads the novel (you and me), will have to read and take it on these terms, with no apologies on the part of the novel/author.  This in a way is Adiga’s answer to the wretched question of who the Indian Anglophone author writes for, the Anglophone readership in India, or the world?  And as (in a sense) purloiners of Balram’s letters, we share in some small way in his moral world – we too are thieves, moral compromisers.

            Secondly, the freedom of knowing that his letters will not “arrive” allows Balram a certain degree of formal/discursive experimentation (again, very 18thC novel-like – cp. Richardson, Sterne, even Mary Shelley).  E.g. chronological freedom: Balram, writing from Bangalore in the present, tells his story by selective flashback, choosing only those moments and episodes he is interested in, rather than in a straightforward chronological narrative with some pretensions of completeness.  He can do this because of the supposed narrative economy required of letters, and because of the idiosyncratically chatty tone he has adopted in his one-to-one communication with Wen Jiabao.  Also, the incorporation of “found” texts: the wanted poster, the sign outside the government hospital, newspaper advertisements, political slogans on banners, the price list of liquors at the neighbourhood stall (all signaled by change in type, formatting, etc) – all a pretense of having enfolded or incorporated actual signs and documents into his narrative (a “jackdaw” or “scrapbook” approach).  While any novel can do this (usually to a limited extent), Balram’s narrative delights in these incorporations and digressions, almost as if he is showing off a scrapbook of how India “really is” – ie the fiction of the word-made-flesh. 

3.   Intertextuality and Plot

We have alluded to Frankenstein (Balram as a “monster” created by the Thakur’s class; the epistolary narrative as Frankenstein-like).  In addition, there are elements of the rags-to-riches/entrepreneurship story (Gatsby again?  Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo? Media stories of poor individuals “made good”); revenge narratives (not so much the 17th C revenger tragedies, more like contemporary revenge dark comedies – Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks, Martin Amis’s Money or The Information?); the 18th C “confessional” or picaresque novel (James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; Defoe’s Moll Flanders); the criminal or “goonda” (Hindi “gangster,” “thug”) novel.  The novel itself alludes to “your typical Murder Weekly story – or Hindi film” (p. 269).  And in some ways, like all rags-to-riches stories, it’s a kind of bildungsroman as well – the education of the naďve and poor Balram, except in this dark version the education is not so much psychological as psychopathological. 

But all this is qualified by the epistolary format in which the plot unfolds.  Balram in a sense has given the game away from the beginning, we know how he ends: “living in the world’s center of Technology and Outsourcing,” p. 1 – he has escaped, “made good,” and all the events he narrates are bracketed or encapsulated by that fact.  Class struggle, suffering, moral dilemmas, the thrill of his criminal plottings and whether he will be discovered – all are mitigated by the knowledge that he has made it.

Thus in a sense the dominant plot element is that of having “made it” – the self-congratulatory, smug note of having “broken out of the coop” (p. 275).  Even the intertextual elements might be seen as a kind of capitalistic bricolage – as if to say that given these textual elements, Balram can fashion a success story, turn “found” narrative bits into a story of ascendancy and triumph. 

TWT is in this sense a literary/ideological heir to 18thC and 19thC European MC/capitalist novels: the novels of Daniel Defoe and Honore de Balzac (or even the less gloomy Zola novels, like The Ladies’ Paradise), stories where individuals overcome circumstances by dint of networking, systematic planning, hard work, some unscrupulousness.  A kind of “protestant work ethic” (Max Weber) novel on steroids, extolling (implicitly of course) the virtues and ultimate success that come from the individual’s exceptional thrift, application, savings, entrepreneurship.


India: Space, Culture, Ideology

One of the most noteworthy aspects of TWT is its explicit (controversial, but also founded) spatial/cultural schematization of India.  Adiga takes a lot of the bits of cultural critique of Indian society (we saw some of it in GST – caste, social bigotry, problems like alcoholism, rural poverty etc), and explicitly expresses it in the form of a geospatial schema:


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.

Which black river am I talking of – which river of Death, whose banks are full of rich, dark, sticky mud whose grip traps everything that is planted in it, suffocating and choking and stunting it?

Why, I am talking of Mother Ganga, daughter of the Vedas, river of illumination, protector of us all, breaker of the chain of birth and rebirth.  Everywhere this river flows, that area is the Darkness. (p. 12)


This (as Balram acknowledges, right after this) reverses the old schema where the “holy” Hindu heartland of the north (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar) is superior to the low-caste, poorly-educated states of the south.  What TWT sketches is a new (global era) geopolitics of India, where older priorities like caste and skin colour matter less than things like money and entrepreneurship.  (The point about the ocean is significant – in the 19th C and earlier, high-caste Hindus believed that to cross the ocean – the “kala pani” or black water – was to lose your caste, because you lost your connection with mother India.  TWT reverses this value system: now it is precisely what connects you with the ocean and with transnational influences, that is good, and what keeps you bound to the land and its traditions which is bad).

            Hence the importance of the “returnee” Indian (as we also saw in the airport scene in GST).  Ashok and Pinky are the new hope for India – a landowning elite with hopefully a kinder, gentler manner/values than the traditional elite (represented by Ashok’s family).  There is nothing revolutionary or radical about the society they represent: it will still elitist and entail a sharp divide between “haves” and “have nots,” they still despise and look down on Balram.  Only the new order they represent has more of a humanist quality: Ashok can actually take something of an interest in Balram at times, and Pinky for all her contempt for him refuses to be part of the scheme that sends him to jail for her crime.  But then what does it mean that by the end of the novel Ashok is dead, and Pinky has returned to India – what does this symbolize for the new India they represent?  And how does this version of “new India” compare to the scarier, more revolutionary version embodied in Balram himself?  (Is it that the social change represented by Ashok is trivial?  As Balram says at one point of Ashok and his brother, “That was when it struck me that there really was no difference between the two of them.  They were both their father’s seed (p. 206)”.  Or is Balram being unreliable yet again, saying this to justify his extreme actions?)

            For that matter, what are we to make of Balram’s idealization of China (an idealization repeated by Adiga’s central character in Last Man in Tower, btw)?  Is there some truth in the fact that China has found a formula for Asian modernization in the global era that will forever elude India (because of the latter’s corruption, self-interestedness, cultural backwardness etc)?  Or is Balram once again guilty of stacking the cards, painting such a hopeless prospect of India’s modernization project precisely so that he can justify the extreme actions of individuals like himself?  (cp, btw, the possible “stacking of the cards” against India that Roy does in GST – do we see a discernible pattern in Indian Anglophone fiction?).

‘Old’ and ‘New’ Global Capital

Stuart Hall (“The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity”, in Culture, Globalization and the World-System, ed. Anthony D. King) makes a useful distinction between

…two forms of globalization, still struggling with one another: an older, corporate, enclosed, increasingly defensive one which has to go back to nationalism and national cultural identity in a highly defensive way, and to try to build barriers around it before it is eroded.  And then this other form of the global post-modern which is trying to live with, and at the same moment, overcome, sublate, get hold of, and incorporate difference. 


He wasn’t speaking about India in particular, but there does seem to be value in this distinction, preventing us from making sweeping and universalizing comments about globalization and its impact on developing socio-economies.  The latter version (“this other form”) is the one most people talk about and think of: the McCluhan, McDonaldization type, that brings the kind of homogenizing abstraction that Deleuze and Guattari call the “body without organs.”

            This type may ultimately carry all before it, but it’s important to see that it isn’t the only way that capitalism manifests itself, and also to see that in some ways the two forms of globalization are at odds with each other. 

            The former type (“older, corporate, enclosed, increasingly defensive one”) may be represented in some ways by the Thakur family in TWT.  It is very much tied to the local and traditional: “Thakur” is a hereditary title/class name for the aristocratic landowning caste, and we see that the Thakur family’s wealth base is in land back in the “darkness.”  But they have also broadened out into other industries, both in the rural areas (transportation, etc), as well as now in the big city.  They represent the old landed/wealthy class now trying to play money politics and establish robber-baron-like large monopolistic (or at least anti-competitive) corporations.

            Balram’s type of entrepreneurship is diametrically opposed to the older one: he can only succeed and thrive by thwarting the old one (and violently so); both are equally unscrupulous and unjust, but his is characterized by change and merit, while theirs is dependent on heredity and traditional networks.  While theirs shows little or no empathy for anyone else (except slightly, on the part of Ashok and Pinky), Balram’s shows a certain degree of calculated empathy (for his nephew, and for the family of the boy run down by his taxi driver).  Indeed the 2 motor accidents are calculated to show the diametrical opposition of the two systems: while the old capitalism’s response is to bribe and whitewash themselves (at the expense of victimizing both the accident victim and Balram), Balram’s response is also to bribe, but then to take some responsibility by compensating the family, offering a job to the younger brother, and even the charity of exonerating his driver.

            In keeping with its foregrounding of an “entrepreneurial” and “Protestant work ethic” plot (see above), TWT also seems intent on validating the newer form of capitalism over the older (nationalistic, local) one.  The suggestion is that the newer form is more in step with current move of global capitalism, with the values of the West, with the “Americans” that Balram wants to woo (at the end of the novel) and with returnee Indians like Ashok and Pinky.  This regime of “light” seems the only way forward for India, in contrast to the older and repressive regime of “darkness.”

            But if so, again the question arises: how are we to read the murder of Ashok and the return to India of Pinky?  Why is Balram depicted in such sinister terms (murderer, betrayer of his own family, selfish individualist)?  What does Adiga suggest about new capital, through this figure of an at best ambivalent new entrepreneur?


Role of Women in New India

Women in this novel are conspicuous by their absence, apart from Pinky (who thus ends up playing an important role), the rest playing minor roles of prostitutes, etc.  This is actually consistent with the picture of Indian women in GST: although in that novel there is a plethora of significant women characters (Mammachi, Ammu, Rahel, Baby Kochamma), they are all in troubled, passive positions, that passivity leading to problems for the Indian family.  Women in GST are bound by marriage (to marry early or else to be considered left on the shelf; to have sexual intercourse only within the bounds of marriage, or else to be considered a “prostitute” and discredited; to do whatever it takes to remain married, or else to bear the “shame” of divorce), caste (to have no dealings with anyone, especially men, of lower castes), and gender (to have no say in business and property matters – thus the pickling company effectively belongs to Chacko; to struggle to find an authentic career and individual identity in Indian society, hence both Ammu’s and Rahel’s desultory, itinerant career paths).  Women in GST are effectively circumscribed by their families and local communities, which provide the direction and propriety which alone justify the actions and lives of women.

            Looking at Indian women in this context may help explain the relative absence of women in TWT.  The novel’s silence about women just confirms the fact that their significant actions are circumscribed, and thus not worth mentioning.  All the plotting, scheming, work and action in the novel is done by men. 

            Pinky, the exception, suggests the difference that being outside of Indian society makes.  Her “outsider” status is conferred by her privileged status as a returnee (the suggestion being that differences in manners/values is justified by the economic importance of returnees), which extends to her religion (she is rumored to be a “Christian,” although apart from her insistence on not being party to the scapegoating of Balram there is little other indication to confirm this).  But female mobility and freedom cuts both ways: not only does it allow her a certain degree of freedom within Indian society, it also gives her the freedom to leave it altogether, and return to America, the suggested bastion of individual freedom and gender equality.

            The only other significant female figure in the novel is “sly old Kusum,” Balram’s granny.  However, instead of being a nurturing figure, she is a predatory figure who appears to feed on the labour of her family:

I couldn’t stop thinking of Kishan’s body.  They were eating him alive in there!  They would do the same thing to him that they did to Father – scoop him out from the inside and leave him weak and helpless, unless 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! (p. 74)


Although there are no other (grand)maternal figures to compare or contrast her with, Kusum does appear to be a kind of anti-mother or dark mother: deliberately exploitative, selfish and predatory, feeding off her own kin, rather than nurturing or sustaining.  She controls the fortunes of the family, deciding whether or not Balram can have the 300 rupees for driving lessons (only on condition that “you’ll send every rupee you make every month back to Granny” (p. 47).  She also decides on whether Balram will marry (although he thwarts it by running away), and whom.

            Kusum’s behavior reinforces the imagery of “Mother Ganga” as another exploitative, anti-mother.  Her only basis is the traditional family structure, and her authority as an elder, and on that basis she makes demands and decisions which run against Balram’s values of individualism, rationality and self-interest.  Kusum, like Ganga, and like India as a whole, is the anti-modern, her negative depiction ultimately justifying Balram’s decision to sacrifice her and the family for his own happiness.  However, this (deliberately, on the novel’s part) again raises the issue of Balram’s credibility as a narrator – is he stacking the cards against Indian traditionalism, yet again?  Apart from Kusum, what did the rest of his family ever do against him (except, of course, at Kusum’s instigation – but does this bear moral weight?).  Why does the novel rest its view of a new Indian entrepreneurship and value system on the actions and narration of such a problematic character/narrator?



TWT and the Future of India

Thus the novel ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers.  Although the ostensible clash between old and new India (in capitalisms, values, modes of operation) seems straightforward enough, and the reader is inclined to align himself/herself against the old (simply because characters like Kusum, the Stork, even Ashok and Pinky seem so objectionable), the problem of Balram remains.  What kind of future does he represent, when it can only be established on the basis of the appalling violence and selfishness he exhibits?  Even if it is argued that his violence is necessary, a symbol of just how strong the hold of old India is on the underclass (and just what is required to break that hold), the question then remains: How can we trust the depictions, representations and thus also values of someone who has such a strong self-interest in depicting the old India in strikingly negative terms? 

            Relatedly: if the novel seems to be about a revolution (of values and modes of operation) in India, and the dawn of a new India, and even if this revolution seems necessary given the unpleasantness of old India – what kind of future does India have, when it is associated with a figure like Balram?  Does the novel offer any alternative, any tertium quid which is not either repressively traditional or ruthlessly anti-traditional?