Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger". A Study in Systemic Marginality

Essay 2015 8 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature


[1] Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger: A Study in Systemic Marginality

Samuel Missal


The concept of marginality first developed by the sociologist Robert E Park has evolved over the decades into multifarious dimensions. While sociologist, geographers, environmentalists and economists have used different terms like exclusion, peripheralization, and marginalization to describe economic and ecological disadvantages; postcolonialists have used the concept of the subaltern to critique the empire. As a postcolonial text, The White Tiger depicts the condition of the marginalized in all its complexity in the post-liberalized Indian Society. In the novel, marginality is seen as a systemic condition that is sustained through the hegemonic exercise of power by one group of people over another. This paper attempts to show how such systemic marginality permeates all aspects of the society - economic, social, political and even spatial – in the novel. The study reveals that The White Tiger is a document of our times that reflects the reality in all its sordidness.

Keywords: Marginality, The White Tiger, Postcolonial, Systemic

Marginality is a ubiquitous term in postcolonial texts. Often seen as the outcome of colonial subordination in terms of race, class, ethinicity or gender, the marginal critiques the imperial centre. As Crew points out, it was in the earliest phase of deconstruction that “ a key conceptual spatialization was effected such that centre and margin became available as terms of a radical critique” (121). Similarly, taking cue from Gramsci, Ranajit Guha, Chakravarty Spivak et.al. introduced the concept of the subaltern- rewriting history from the bottom as it were and critiquing ‘elite historiography’. While the subaltern studies school primarily used the ‘peasant paradigm’ (see Pandey), and also employed Derridian dialectics for its ends, courtesy Spivak, the discourse of marginality began long before the deconstructive critique of the metaphysics of centre, through the sociologist Robert Park (1928) who defined it in terms of a psycho-social predicament of a man caught in a conflict of two cultures: the one from which he migrates to the one in which he settles. Since then some of the social sciences, for example, Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology have attempted to define and conceptualize marginality in terms of a condition of man. Simultaneously, terms like exclusion and peripheralization have also been used along with marginality to describe a certain condition. These concepts focus upon the denial of rights, privileges and opportunities to a fringe group who have a relationship of subordination to the majority with whom they cannot assimilate. All these concepts are multidimensional in nature pointing to the disempowerment in social, economic and political spheres of life.( Brent ). For the purposes of this paper, marginality is defined as “… a complex condition of disadvantage which individuals and communities experience as a result of vulnerabilities that may arise from unfavorable environmental, cultural, social and economic factors” (Aseefa Meheretu et.al.). Mehretu and others also make a classification of the types of marginality that include, contingent marginality, collateral marginality, systemic marginality and leveraged marginality (ibid) which are useful tools in understanding and analyzing The White Tiger (2008) which is a depiction of the condition of the deprived classes in Indian Society. The paper is an outworking, especially of the systemic marginality of the depressed class of people as seen in the novel

The White Tiger, came to the limelight for winning the 2008 Man Booker Prize even as a debut novel. The book apparently was passionately debated by the panel of judges, according to Micheal Portillo, the chairman. He praised it for its attention to “important social issues: the division between the rich and the poor, and issues on a global scale.” (qtd in Higgins). Adiga too claims that the book was the result of his encounters, as a member of the privileged middle class with the underclass who he met during his travels as a journalist (ibid). In yet another interview, Adiga claimed that he wanted to highlight the “. . .brutal injustices of society. That's what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies. That's what I'm trying to do - it's not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self-examination."(qtd in Jeffries). This realistic picture has however drawn the ire of many an Indian critic who have criticized Adiga for selling poverty to the West (Murari qtd in Khan), for being inauthentic (Kumar), for merely extending his journalism to novel writing (Jayammohan) etc. Whatever the critique, The White Tiger is undoubtedly a novel that engages the social reality of India and has therefore evoked both admiration and praise.

The social reality that Adiga portrays in his novel is as Portillo points out the division between the rich and the poor. This division is however, not an unadulterated one. It is a relationship of power where the rich exercise absolute power over the poor. Such a hegemony is the characteristic of systemic marginality. As has been pointed out, systemic marginality, “results from disadvantages which people and communities experience in a socially constructed system of inequitable relations within a hegemonic order that allows one set of individuals to exercise undue power and control over another set with the latter manifesting one or a number of vulnerabilities and markers based on class, gender and other similar characteristics (Aseefa Meheretu.91). Meheretu et.al. also point out that systemic marginality does not offer itself to reform policies of a welfare state because it is “ a deliberate social construction by the dominant class to achieve desirable outcomes of political control, social exclusion and economic exploitation” (92). This is indeed an apt comment of the feudalistic structure of the society that is portrayed by Adiga in his novel. It is written as a series of letters to Wen Jibao, the supposed premier of China to whom Balram Halwai, the protagonist, condescends to tell the “truth about Bangalore”(6), by telling his own “life story”(ibid), that is, the story of the underclass in India. Balram Halwai apparently belongs to the caste of sweet-makers (65) as his name suggests, but the focus of the book is the class divide. That class has overtaken caste in India, in the recent, is suggested by Adiga, through Balram, who declares, “. . . in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are only two castes: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinie: eat or get eaten up” (64) The statement not only points to the great gulf between the rich and the poor but also reveals the dynamics of the relationship. Thus the novel’s fulcrum is the great chasm between the rich and the poor and it is this which forms the basis of the systemic marginality of the underclass to which Balram Halwai belongs. It is also obvious that this marginality has been accentuated by the privatization. liberalization and globalization policies that had been let loose in the Indian economy since 1991, to the further deprivation of the underclass. The effect was the furtherance of socio-economic inequities and lopsided development which caused contingent as well as leveraged marginality. It is to an elaboration of such systemic marginality in the novel that the paper engages itself in the following paragraphs.

The metaphor for the class division in the novel is firstly a spatial one. As Balram puts it: “… India is two countries in one: an India of Light and an India of Darkness” (14). Thus Balram describes the neat segregation of the landlord’s dwellings and that of the poor in the village Laxamgarh, his native place- their stark difference juxtaposed in their construction. The landlords lived in high-walled mansions that were self-sufficient in itself, having their own wells, ponds and temple. They only came out, as Balram puts it sarcastically –“to feed”, an euphemism for their exploitation of the poor (25). On the other hand, the poor live in squalor with “families of pigs . . . sniffling through the sewage” on the middle of the main road. Besides, the prime of place at the entrance of the house is the water buffalo, (understandably because it is the only continuous and reliable source of nourishment as well as income ), while men and women slept in separate rooms, albeit with “ their legs falling one over the other, like one creature, a millipede” (21). In Delhi too the situation is similar. Mr. Ashok, Balram’s boss live in a high-rise apartment interestingly called the Buckingham Towers, shiny and new, big lobby, lift and all plush white furnishings in the rooms while the slums nearby which was filled with construction workers who had made these high-rise apartments lived in shanties made of tin and who defecated in the open. The grim reality of the poor man’s Delhi is described thus:” Thousands of people live on the side of the roads in Delhi, They have come from the Darkness too- you can tell by their thin bodies, filthy faces, by the animal- like way they live under the huge bridges and overpasses, making fire and washing and taking out lice from their hair, while the cars roar past them” (119-120).

Another picture of the marginality of the underclass is seen in their physiognomy. Adiga’s portrayal of this distinctive contrast is worth quoting:

A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow,
white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father’s
spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women
use in villages to draw water from the wells, the clavicle
curved around the neck in a high relief like a dog’s collar;
cuts and whips and scars like little whip marks in his flesh,
ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his
hipbones into his buttocks. (26-27)

The description points to the physical hardihood of the poor. Evidently, their body wears the marks of their physical labour and this is absent in the rich. The last line of this description of course sums it up aptly, when it says, “The story of a poor man’s life is written in his body with a sharp pen” (27)

Marginality is also furthered in The White Tiger, through political disempowerment and disenfranchisement. In a deadpan sarcastic tone Balram Halwai notes that though India did not have sewage, drinking water or Olympic Gold medals, it had democracy. He recalls the time when his name was included in the voter’s list even though he was a minor. Balram thus reminiscences, “I had to be eighteen. All of us in the tea shop had to be eighteen, the legal age to vote. There was an election coming up and the tea shop owner had already sold us. He had sold our fingerprints – the inky fingerprints which the illiterate person makes on the ballot paper to indicate his vote.” (97). The criminal antecedents of the great political leaders, the tall promises to the people and the complete annihilation of those who oppose is the all too familiar hallmark of the Indian democracy that is depicted by Adiga. The meaningless and futility of the exercise of election is brought to the fore when the protagonist comments: “There are three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera and election fever . . . . This last one is the worst. It makes people talk and talk about things that they have no say in” (98). This is even more cuttingly acerbic when Balram says: “Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxamgarh.” (ibid). His father too had seen twelve elections but someone else had voted for him every time (100).

The sense of economic distress that the underclass faces is succinctly exemplified in the life of Balram Halwai. His father did not want him to follow in his footsteps as a Rickshaw puller and thus had put him in a school. He was presumably the brightest of all the students, despite studying in adverse conditions. He had also been promised a scholarship by the visiting school inspector but all this came to naught. A loan for marrying off his sister results in his unobtrusively dropping out of school to work in a tea shop breaking coal for the fire so that the debt could be paid in time. Education is thus a luxury that is snatched from him in childhood. There is no respite from such a life as he continues to work in a tea shop even after his father’s death. The misery of their lot is undeniably pathetic: Describing the boys working in the tea shop. Balram observes, “. . . 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, in their thirties or forties or fifties but still ‘boys’ ….” (51) Unemployment is another signifier of economic marginality. The seasonal exodus to the cities in search of jobs is something that defines the villager. The migration is primarily driven by distress when even subsistence living is denied the villager. The narrator therefore writes that the “Animals” fed on the village till there was nothing left for anyone to feed on and this leads to the move:“ So the rest of the village left Laxmangarh for food” (26) All the buses were filled to the overflowing and people went to Gaya from where they further travelled to either Delhi, Kolkatta or Dhanbad. (ibid) Such a life of economic deprivation is the lot of the majority in India. As an entrepreneur, Balram sums up the class divide. In his words: “ the history of the world is the history of a ten -thousand year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side; and it has been this way since the start of time ….”This assumption that the class divide is universal is a Marxian analogy that is carried further in the “rooster coop” metaphor that Balram employs to justify the raison d’etre for the failure of the poor to ever bridge the class divide and overcome their marginality. Honest servitude is the quintessence of the Rooster Coop. Balram explains that no Indian ever cheats or rebels his master not because he is honest:

No. it’s because 99.9 per cent of us are caught in the Rooster
Coop … Masters trust their servants with diamonds in this country!
Why doesn’t the servant take the sitcase full of diamonds? He’ no
Gandhi, he’s human, he’s you and me. But he is in the Rooster
Coop. the trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire
Indian economy. . . Never before in human history have so few
owned so much to so many… A handful of men have trained
the remaining 99.9 per cent – as strong, as talented, as intelligent
in everyway – to exist in perpetual servitude: a servitude so strong
that you can put the key of emancipation in a man’s hand and
he will throw it back at you with a curse (175-176).

Having made this grand analysis of the rationale for the subjugation of the poor by the rich, Balram offers to even give the reason for the continuance of the Coop. He suggests that in India a man is so bound to his family that his conscience does not allow him to put his family in danger in an attempt to break out of the coop. Hence, in Balram’s opinion it takes someone like the white tiger to break out of the Coop. But Balram is the white tiger, the rarest of the rare. He does not want to live in the coop forever. Therefore he turns a rebel. He murders his own master and runs away with the master’s money to start a new life. The turn of events in Balram’s attitude from one of absolute servility to one of bold murder is one that needs telling. The transformation starts from his childhood. His life had been one long story of abysmal oppression that was provided by the circumstances beyond his control. He dropped out of school and started working in a tea shop to repay the debt acquired for Kusum’ wedding. Later, after his father dies he leaves for Dhanbad and works again in a tea shop there till he learns driving. It was this that changed his life and character. In contact with his landlords and their servants, he understood that this was a jungle , where only the fittest survived. Thus he forces Ram Persad his fellow driver to leave the master’s house after knowing his double standards and becomes the undisputed first servant. But the turning point of his life came when he was designated as the scapegoat who would take the blame for the killing of a slum dweller in an accident. It is this that awakened the rebel in him and he planned out the murder after Pinky left giving him thousands of rupees. The smell of money and the absolute trust that his masters’ had placed on him worked in his favour and he committed the unthinkable – murder of his own master – knowing full well the risks involved. His family is massacred in cold blood as revenge. But the White Tiger had won. Balram Halwai had finally broken out of the coop.

Adiga’s story of the marginal man of which Balram is an embodiment is rather realistic fable of the malaise that infects the underclass. The only solution of suggested redemption through murder may seem morally repugnant but is a grim possibility given the fact that survival for the underclass is truly trying. Besides the options for upward mobility are non-existent and therefore the recourse to unlawful means that in the milieu of corruption is indeed an unnoticeable blot. On the question of the morality of his act, Balram argues that in Bangalore one has the option to be good but “In Laxmangarh , he doesn’t even has this choice. This is the difference beween that India and this India: the choice” (306) Besides one cannot expect a revolution to happen. Once again Balram states: “An Indian revolution? No, sir. It won’t happen. People of this country are still waiting for their war of freedom to come from somewhere else . . . . That will never happen, Everyman must make his own Benares” (304) And finally he justifies his action with words that reflect the restlessness and the ennui of the underclass that provokes their rebellion:

Have I not succeeded in the struggle that every poor man
should be making- the struggle not to take the lashes that
your father took, not to end up in a mound of indistinguishable
bodies that will rot up in the black mud of the Mother Ganga.

Adiga’s portrayal of the marginality of the underclass is unsettling to the mind but it is realistic and truthful. He has been faithful to the writer’s art in reflecting the social injustices in Indian society. While as a social document it is penetrating in its portrayal of the inequities in Indian society, it nevertheless gives a lopsided view. As Mihir Shah (2008), writing exactly in the same year as Adiga and countering the subaltern view of the Partha Charterjee has pointed out, class may be a factor in maginalization but caste too plays a major role in the inequities faced in Indian Society. The marginalization faced by the dalits is yet another dimension of Indian society which is not economic but socio-cultural. (see Jatin Gajrawala) It too is endemic in Indian society. Perhaps Adiga would do well to write another novel documenting their plight as many dalit writers have done.

Works Cited

Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. Noida: Harper Collins, 2008. Print.

Assefa Mehretu, Bruce Wm. Pigozzi and Lawerence M Sommers. "Concepts in Social and Spatial Marginality." Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography 82.2 (2000): 89-101. 05 Feb 2015. www.jstor.org.

Bernt, Matthias and Laura Colini. Exclusion, Marginalization and Peripheralization. Conceptual Concerns in the Study of Urban Inequalities. Working Paper No 49. Erkner: Leibniz Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning, 2013. electronic. Jan 2015. www.irs-net/de/download/wp-exclusion-marginalization-peripheralization.pdf.

Crewe, Jonathan. "Defining Marginality?" Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 10.1 (Spring 1991): 121-130. 02 Feb 2015.www.jstor.org.

Higgins, Charlotte. "Out of the Darkness: Adiga's White Tiger rides to Booker victory against the odds." 14 Oct 2008. www.guardian.com. electronic. 27 Feb 2015.

Jatin Gajrawala, Toral. Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste. Bronx, NY,USA: Fordham University Press, 2012. electronic. 2015 Jan 2015. ProQuest ebrary.

Jeffries, Stuart. "Roars of Anger." 16 Oct 2008. www.theguardian.com. electronic. 27 Feb 2015.

Khan, MQ. "The White Tiger: A Critque." Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies 1.2 (2009): 84-97. Electronic. 29 Jan 2015. www.inflibnet.ac.in.

Kumar, Amitava. "Adiga's The White Tiger." 2 Nov 2008. www.thehindu.com. electronic. 27 Feb 2015.

Pandey, Gyanendra. "The Subaltern as Subaltern Citizen." Economic and Political Weekly 41.46 (2006): 4735-4741. Electronic. 29 Jan 2015. www.jstor.org.

Shah, Mihir. "Structure of Power in Indian Society." Economic and Political Weekly 43.46 (2008): 78-83. electronic. 28 Feb 2015. www.jstor.org.

[1] This paper takes off from another paper on The White Tiger presented at the international conference on “Marginality and Indian English Literature” held at the Bharati Vidyapeeth’s YM College on 13-14 Feb 2015.


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Title: Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger". A Study in Systemic Marginality