The Ugly Duckling

Aravind Adiga presents the idea of there being a “rooster coop” in India, one that keeps the master-slave dynamic thriving between the upper-class and the lower-class citizens. The idea is simple but incredibly appropriate, just like chickens or roosters in a coop, all smushed together, hardly any room to feel comfortable and even less to move. They take advantage at whatever the coop allows for, but never reaching beyond it’s perimeters, mostly spending their time eating and untold to them, waiting to die. Even when they see one of their own taken and possibly see them killed, they remain humble towards the coop. The birds in the coop are subjected to the will of the farmer, just like the lower-class subject themselves day in and day out to the will of their employers good or bad; but in most cases, bad. There are no uprisings among the workers, like the poultry they effectively move through their days waiting to die or be sent to prison for their master.

Luckily, Balram, makes the transition from rooster to white tiger and becomes a man of his own, an entrepreneur. Many argue over whether or not killing his master and signing his family members death warrants was justified or not. If it is or is not is not the issue of the book. Adiga makes clear that Balram has two choices: stay as a servant and be merely a means for money to his family or become a free man forever carting around his conscious. We can’t nit-pick at his choices for a few reasons. The first being, we’re not him and cannot begin to fully grasp his situation. Second, seeing as we’re not him, we can’t come in and interpret his actions with our own experience that is quite opposite Balram’s and further, if we do try to approach it from however close we can get to understanding/feeling his situation, we’d be left with the same choices and would have to choose one. Which leads me to my last reason which is: Adiga gives us no choice, he’s either going to kill or serve which is the central issue to this book. We can practically empathize with Balram for killing his family, he’s fucked either way; we can’t judge him for the choice he makes and it’s subsequent actions.

I believe Adiga is saying India is shrouded in darkness, the system is so oppressive that people coming from the same place as Balram are faced with lose-lose options. Lose your family or yourself.

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Dire Warnings

In Bangalore, Balram listens to a speech by The Great Socialist and begins wondering about the possibility of an Indian revolution to overthrow the Rooster Coop.

“Maybe once in a hundred years there is a revolution that frees the poor… only four men in history have led successful revolutions to free the slaves and kill their masters, this page said: Alexander the Great. Abraham Lincoln of America. Mao of your country. And a fourth man. It may have been Hitler, I can’t remember.”

First off, Toussaint L’Ouverture and his compatriots might have something to say about that.

Now, Balram isn’t an educated man, but he’s picked up quite a few things and he’s an astute listener. Why, then, does he keep forgetting the fourth name in his lists (the first being, of course, the 4 great Muslim poets)? Obviously, Adiga wants readers to pay attention to these sections. In the case of the poets, Adiga seems to be leaving the list open for readers to consider Muslim poets (in an attempt to finish the list). This fits with the undercurrent of the importance of education (especially self-education) running throughout the novel.

With the list of revolutionaries, however, we get a quite differrent response-shaping. Alexander was a king and a conqueror, who ended up losing in India just before dying in Babylon. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a political statement– slaves were given their freedom from an established authority. Mao turned his People’s Revolution into a dictatorship a la Stalin (although an answer in this interview notes that there are some basic benefits of living in an ostensibly communist state). What, then, are we to make of the fourth spot in the list? Why Hitler?

The Treaty of Versailles wasn’t kind to Germany; inflation was bad enough that a meal would cost more when you had eaten it than when you had ordered it. That humiliation is exactly what gave Hitler the conditions necessary for his rise to power. He was able to exploit the hardships undergone by every German, turn their anger towards something nationalistic, and institute fascism. This may be exactly what Adiga is pointing out: if revolution doesn’t come from within, a charismatic individual can give the people exactly what they thought they wanted.

White Tiger

While reading this novel, and more so while going over the text during class, I have realized the similarities between the experiences of the 99.9% of the Indian population and the 99% of the U.S. population.  Although the issues of those 99% are not quite as oppressive as it is for those in the nation of India.  I can see much of their ignorance within our own society.


Although not quite as drastic, the Murder Weekly (Adiga 104) does a similar job to that of a tabloid in the United States, in current times.  Both types of magazines keep society at bay with gossip and redundant information.  In White Tiger the 99.9% of the Indian population finds themselves intrigues with the stories of others murdering.  “[A] billion servants are secretly fantasizing about strangling their bosses–and that’s why the government of India publishes this magazine and sells it on the streets for just for and a half rupees so that even the poor can buy it (Adiga 104).”  Where as American society being infatuated with murdering their employers which they read about, they instead are mesmerized with becoming the rich celebrities they see in the media.  We are all trapped within the Rooster Coop.

Universality of the American Dream

All I can think about while reading The White Tiger is Frank McCourt.

Well, OK, that’s not all I think about. But The White Tiger seems to be providing some sort of counter narrative to the omnipresent “American Dream” novel/book/story/whatever. In ‘Tis, Frank McCourt writes about his struggles as an Irish immigrant to the US, and much of the book deals with his harsh realization that the “American Dream” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, you can’t exactly pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you’re not even wearing boots, am I right?

*high tom*

*low tom*

*high hat*

But seriously.

There seems to be plenty of public discourse as of late regarding the continued validity of the American Dream. (Before we get any further, I should probably make it clear that I’m fully aware that White Tiger does not, in fact, take place in America. Don’t worry, I’m getting there.) I hate to beat a dead (post-rigor, partially decayed corpse of a) horse, but especially now, in the midst of an economic crisis that has decimated the ranks of the middle class and plunged scores of people into crippling debt, there are still so many staunch defenders of the American Dream.

Balram writes, “Haven’t I succeeded in the struggle that every poor man here should be making — the struggle not to take the lashes your father took, not to end up in a mound of indistinguishable bodies that will rot in the black mud of Mother Ganga?” (273).

I mean, that’s the American Dream in a nutshell too, right? Ending a cycle of poverty; doing better than your parents did. So, “American Dream” is kind of a misnomer — it’s more of a Universal Dream.

But there’s an expectation in the US that clearly doesn’t exist in Balram’s India, i.e., the Darkness. There’s an expectation that someone who works hard enough will be able to be successful as a product of nothing more than the fruit of his own labors. And Balram’s version of the American Dream still ends the same way; he’s just more realistic about the means required to meet that end. He writes, “Yes, it’s true: a few hundred thousand rupees of someone else’s money, and a lot of hard work, can make magic happen in this country” (258). That’s kind of how it works here, now, in modern-day, corporate capitalist America: yeah, you can make money if you work hard. But you have to have money first.

Also, the American Dream as presented in American literature can have very dark undertones — I’m thinking mostly of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Sure, Carrie claws her way out of poverty, but she resorts to prostitution to do it. Or even in something more like The Rise of Silas Lapham (William Dean Howells), where the protagonist ostensibly achieves the American Dream, only to realize that he hasn’t the command of aristocratic social skills to actually maintain a life among the upper class. Plus he loses all his money in the end anyway.

For something that’s touted as one of America’s best qualities — unlimited upward social mobility for those willing to work — it’s not exactly the most realistic thing. It’s more like folklore, than anything else. I guess.

But Balram’s version of the American Dream is representative of the reality of the American Dream. The “darkness” of Balram’s American Dream is overt and in your face, and to question whether or not his story is dark would probably just be to have not read the book. Balram lied, stole, and murdered his way out of poverty. And as far as I could tell, at the end of the book, it seems like he’s going to be able to continue to live a pretty decent life. To me, that sort of speaks to the complete bullshit-ery that is the notion of “working hard” in order to climb the proverbial socioeconomic ladder.

On page 43, Balram writes:

“Go to a tea shop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that tea shop — men, I say, but better to call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms, sluggish, unshaven, and in their thirties or forties or fifties but still ‘boys.’ But that is your fate if you do your job well — with honesty, dedication, and sincerity, the way Gandhi would have done it, no doubt” (43).

The American Dream certainly doesn’t exist in America any more. And according to Balram, it doesn’t exist in India either.

Here’s a video of my boy Noam Chomsky talking about the death of the American Dream. It’s really a trailer for a film (“Requiem for the American Dream”) but the things he says about the current state of affairs in America seem just as applicable to the India that Balram describes throughout The WhiteTiger.

Chandeliers

I think it is important, right off the bat, to blog about the use of chandeliers in the first couple pages of the reading that is due for today. The idea of “darkness” wraps around the use of Balram’s chandeliers. He passes by the talking of his family, which is stresses don’t exist anymore, and goes right on to the chandeliers. Those objects seem to be quite important to him. He writes this story all while sitting under a chandelier, in direct light from that piece of furniture. I know that it’s definitely a symbol regarding the darkness, but I hope to talk more about it in class. I can’t help but wonder why those pieces are so important to him. The chandelier can, yes, literally give light, but maybe it could symbolize some sort of energy or light in Balram’s eyes. The chandelier can symbolize the chance that Balram has to get out of the darkness of India and find his way into the light or wealthier side. Maybe the extravagant nature of the chandeliers is Balram sort of mocking the light (or Adiga mocking the light). I cannot wait to continue reading this narrative because I just hope to find answers.

I also want to write about the line “free people don’t know the value of freedom, that’s the problem” on page 97 (in my text). The line before that may help connect the ideas: “I don’t understand why other people don’t buy chandeliers all the time, and put them up everywhere.” That concept is key to note because he is newly “free” to the environment that he is in. His chandeliers definitely stand for something else, other than just to light the dark at his desk. This may make him feel more valuable to himself. He wants to be part of the light and those lights help do that. But he comes from the darkness, so can that every really leave his mind? Can he ever assimilate into the light, especially with his position of being a servant, and the fact that he comes from the dark? I’ll definitely keep thinking about that as I continue reading.

Personality of India

As the second part of the novel opens up, and with his trip to Delhi, Balram begins to describe his masters more and more personally. We begin to see how Mr. Ashok is not really a bad guy. In fact, it seems that the servants are all the more devious in this novel. For example, the eldest, and former number one servant, Ram Bahadur tried to bribe the driving position in Delhi from both the muslim servant and Balram. In addition, the servants in Delhi are so brutal that Balram choses to live alone. Balram’s family, and people from his village such as his school teacher were corrupt as well. It amazes me in this novel, that he is obligated to send money back home, which he neglects to do finally. Even upon returning to visit his family, he is treated as a money making object rather than a human being, and therefore storms out. Ironically, the Landlords, Mr. Ashok in particular are the ones who are not out to humiliate everyone else. In fact, it seems like they pay their staff handsomely and even at one point, refer to Ram Bashadur as a family member after 35 years of service. When we meet the Great Socialist it is sad to understand that corruption has fully infiltrated India from the poorest levels of society (the Dehli driver with a skin disease) up to the highest levels of government, who Mr. Ashok had come to bribe. No where in India does one find true console, at least that’s how Balram has us thinking. For a country of extreme religious value and exploding population, one would think they’d be less malicious and devious to each other than they are. Balram also specifically diverts blame away from the Caste System for this. Earlier in the novel he claims the Caste system was beneficial to Indians, where a harmonious order was accomplished and where no one really ever starved. It is the British, he claims, in 1947 who left and destroyed everything in the process.

Lastly I would like to comment on the Murder Weekly Magazines published in Dehli by the government to keep lower castes submissive. Balram mentions that every driver and servant (over a billion of them) are probably constantly thinking about killling, more specifically “strangling” their masters. He says “When your servant starts reading Ghandi” is when to be afraid. This an is interesting tactic by the government, aside from it being sick and disturbing. Rape and murder fantasies are the unhealthiest means to keep people under control. Is this a true allegation about the Indian Government? I’ve heard about similar programs in other countries where the government subsidizes harmful products to keep people at bay – like the Russians subsidizing Vodka for all government employees (which includes everyone) so that people can stay drunk and docile all the time.

Darkness and Light

Darkness is not only a euphemism for poverty or for ignorance, it becomes its own entity.  When Adiga talks about the Darkness, he is talking about many things at once. He is talking about a region, a people, an ideology, a problem. Most specifically and most poignantly, when he talks about the darkness he is talking about lack of education and ignorance.

Balram escapes his village, the darkness as region, but he does not escape the ideology of darkness. He remains in the shadows. As the ‘white tiger’ Balram is intelligent and throughout the narrative is always desiring to learn more. When he starts to pull himself out of the ideology of darkness we as readers see a stronger pull out of ignorance.

In one conversation with the Premier, Balram makes a very brief quip about the supposed  danger of those consumed in darkness being brought to the light of education. “It’s when your driver starts to read about Gandhi and the Buddha that it’s time to wet your pants,” (Adiga 123). If the poor and the spat upon start thinking for themselves and feeling empowered, then those in power will fear for their lives. Adiga seems to suggest the improbability along with this statement. The idea of drivers collectively starting to read for education and not for entertainment seems out of the question with the characters painted in this novel.

When Balram is around books he describes it as that, “[…] your brain starts to hum” (206).  It is interesting, and not to be taken lightly, that this is a book that puts a lot of importance on reading. Through his satire,  Adiga is enlightening us as readers, both to the darkness in India, but more importantly to the darkness in us as well. We are none of us, so far away from ignorance as we think. There will always be things that we do not know, and political powers we cannot fight, but the more we read and write, the more light there will be.

Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. London: Atlantic, 2008. Print.