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Literature / The White Tiger

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Why yes, the car is significant.
School inspector: You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation?
Balram: The white tiger.
School inspector: That's what you are, in this jungle.

Chock full of satire and black humor, The White Tiger depicts the life of Balram Halwai—the eponymous White Tiger who only comes 'once in a generation'—of how he starts as a lowly driver from the Darkness of India and manages to become a successful social entrepreneur with cunning, intelligence, and murder.

Told in the format of a series of letters to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China. (Yes, It Makes Sense in Context.)

It is author Aravind Adiga's debut novel, and won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It was adapted into a 2021 film directed by Ramin Bahrani and starring Adarsh Gourav as Balram, Rajkummar Rao as Ashok, and Priyanka Chopra as Pinky.

Not to be confused with White Tiger.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Affair Hair: How Balram realizes that Ashok slept with the Ukrainian student.
  • Animal Motifs: The white tiger. The "tiger" part representing the idea of strength and ruthlessness, while the "white" refers to willingness to be different from others and break from all conventions. A few other characters have animal motifs related to them, most notably the landlords of the village of Laxmangarh.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Whenever Vitiligo-Lips asks Balram if his master wants anything.
    Vitiligo-Lips: Been thinking about what I said, Country-Mouse? [...] About getting your master something he'd like? Hashish, or girls, or golf balls? Genuine golf balls from the U.S. Consulate?
  • Badass Driver: Balram, whose ability to drive is a necessary part of his ability to move up in the world.
  • Bad Boss: Mukesh "the Mongoose" and the Stork, who threaten those who work with them with violence as well as Ashok towards the end.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Balram is seen burning a wanted poster of himself, revealing he is wanted for murder. While it initially points to Balram being forced to take the blame of running over a boy, he actually does murder Ashok.
  • Benevolent Boss:
    • Ashok spends most of the book as this, treating Balram with respect and as a friend.
    • Pinky is also reasonably nice, excluding her scolding Balram for his appearance.
    • Balram himself, as he is seen negotiating one of his drivers' freedom at the end.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Some people (like Balram and Mr. Ashok) have their Pet the Dog moments, but it's pretty clear everybody else kind of sucks.
  • Black Humor: The White Tiger is notable for portraying the corruption and tragedies of Indian life in a witty manner.
  • Bribing Your Way to Victory: Everybody. All the time. No exceptions.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: Balram initially planned to leave Dharam behind, but decides to go back and take him with him.
  • Corrupt the Cutie: When Balram first comes to Delhi as a driver, he's described as a 'sweet, innocent village fool'. He doesn't stay that way.
  • Crapsack World: The Darkness, where all the poverty-stricken people reside. Keep note that the rural Indian society, as such, is full of rampant corruption within politicians and policemen and pretty crappy to live in if you're not rich.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Balram's cynical narration throws plenty of barbs at almost every character and facet of Indian society, but he never enters into any rage about its injustice.
  • Equivalent Exchange: Balram managed to move away from the Darkness to the light, but in exchange, he got darkness in his heart.
  • Esoteric Happy Ending: Deliberately invoked. Balram manages to find success and break free from the limitations of his caste, running a successful business and treating his employees well while taking care of his nephew. However, he still murdered Ashok, and his family back home was likely massacred in retaliation. And for all of his triumph that he's no longer in the "coop," the final shot of the film lingers on a group of employees as a reminder that the old Balram was just one of countless Indians in the same position who are still stuck.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Mukesh is genuinely concerned about Ashok's well-being after Pinky leaves him.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Stork and the Mongoose greet Balram like family when they reunite with him in Delhi. It's so they can make him sign a confession, and they're just as abusive to him in their next scene.
  • Good Capitalism, Evil Capitalism:
    • The Stork represents the unquestioned evil of capitalism. He's violent, oppressive to the villagers he more or less owns, and coerces Balram into signing a false confession (to killing a young boy, something which Ashouk's wife Pinky did) or his family will be killed.
    • Ashouk and Pinky vacillate between the two. Ashouk particularly becomes of a jerkass as he's more drawn into his family's bribery schemes, and switches between being kind to Balram and being abusive.
    • Balram claims to be using both Ashouk and the Stork as cautionary tales to not behave like them and to be a good capitalist. He treats his workers with respect, not as servants, and takes full responsibility for their behavior, including trying to make amends when one of them is killed in an accident. Whether or not this represents a happy ending or just a continuation of the same cycle is left up to the individual.
  • Great White Feline: A consistent motif throughout the story. In the book's Title Drop, Balram is compared to the titular animal because his intelligence and potential to rise above his station is as rare and valuable as the white tiger. When he visits a zoo and sees a white tiger in a cage, he sees himself in the animal and kills his boss, giving himself freedom.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: How Balram kills Ashok with a broken whiskey bottle.
  • Happiness in Slavery: The whole 'Rooster Coop' analogy explains the phenomenon of how 80% of Indians are in a way servants who simply cannot not obey their masters (the other 20%).
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Really sad example here: while Balram's father worked his guts out being a rickshaw puller, he ultimately ends up nowhere and dies of tuberculosis.
  • Hidden Depths:
    • Pinky; despite being assumed to be one of "those" women by Balram, and obviously someone of privilege who looks down on him subconsciously despite posturing, she's actually one of the nicest people to him, actively standing up for him when no one else will, inadvertently getting him to realize the idea of basic social norms, and leaves him an incredibly large sum of money (in Balram's eyes) when she has him drive her to the airport to go back to the USA. Granted on some level it has to do with how he handled the driving incident, but it still speaks volumes about her character compared to how everyone else treats him.
    • The Great Socialist. Despite being a corrupt politician extorting Ashok's criminal family, she's still someone of low caste who rose to one of the highest offices in India. Furthermore, how she treats Balram in their few interactions is quite telling; it's highly implied that she completely saw through Balram's facade of Happiness in Slavery just by looking at him, talking to him as an equal and chastizing Ashok's family when they treat him like an imbecile in such a back handed way that they don't even consider the possibility that she's mocking them for not realizing how smart their driver actually is. With this context in mind, it's entirely possible that during her ride after the election, she purposely dropped just how much of a bribe she wanted (4 million Rs) and the location just so that Balram could take the out if he was driven enough to do so.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Balram believed that the only way he could have become an entrepreneur and broken out of the coop was to kill Ashok. Hell, when you look at how things work, he's probably right.
  • Karma Houdini: As far as we know, Balram was never caught for his murder of Ashok (not to mention theft, rampant bribery, and so on).
  • Left Hanging: It's left ambiguous whether or not Balram's family back home was massacred in retaliation for his murder of Ashok, and Balram himself will never follow up on it.
  • Nice Guy: Ashok, who is frequently described by Balram as "virtuous." Although after the driving incident, he becomes significantly more of a Jerkass, though that's probably justifiable due to his trauma over the accident itself and Pinky leaving.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Vitiligo-Lips, the Stork and the Great Socialist.
  • Pet the Dog: Even though Balram kills Mr.Ashok and shamelessly bribes the police to start his own business, he does have his moments, such as taking his nephew Dharam to the zoo and compensating the family of the boy one of his taxi drivers killed.
  • Precision F-Strike: "What a fucking joke", indeed.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Depressingly enough, the perpetual bribery that goes on between the rich of India and the government.
  • Self-Made Man: Balram, at the cost of a good chunk of his soul.
  • Take That!: At a low point in the film, Balram notes “I was trapped in the rooster coop, and don’t believe for a second there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it.”
  • Unusual Euphemism: Whenever Balram starts talking about his or someone else's "beak."
  • Unreliable Narrator: All we know is what Balram writes. Given that he is a confessed murderer, thief and fraudster the reader should not take his statements at face value. Even if we foolishly assume he is perfectly honest, it is entirely his self-justifying remembrance and his perspective we get.
  • Villain Protagonist: Balram, to some. It's really hard to tell.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Great Socialist, revered as an advocate for the poor, is just as corrupt as any other politician and happy to accept bribes from the same rich families she campaigns against.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Balram slaps Dharam after he delivers him an unkind letter from his grandmother.