Similar to imprints on sand or carvings in wood, character is moulded and developed by indents – through pain and suffrage. In the novel, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga explores the dark realities of India’s caste system with a story of a man who broke through the division. The quote by Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved,” is seen through Balram’s journey as he overcomes obstacles to achieve his success. Adiga illustrates that one cannot see true light of a strong soul, inspired ambition and success, without the struggles of being in true darkness and the disadvantages that come along with it.
Balram Halwai is raised in the lower-social caste town of Laxmangarh, India, where he is forced to deal with indignities caused by his family’s poverty. Balram witness’s the death of both of his parents, from illnesses in both of which could have been cured had he been in a higher-caste system of society. His father, Vikram Halwai, died of mistreated tuberculosis. Balram exclaims the ignorance of the government as they failed to appropriately care for his father’s condition and death:
The ward boys made us clean up our Father before we could remove the body. A goat came in and sniffed as we were mopping the blood off the floor. The ward boys petter her and fed her a plump carrot as we mopped our father’s infected blood off the floor.
The lack of care exhibited by the hospital emphasizes the harsh reality of just how terrible life is for the impoverished in India. Balram spoke in high honor of his father and mentions that his father “never crouched,” like the servants were expected to on his job – that he “preferred to stand” (Adiga 20). A life of a man that Balram respected and loved, a life that protected him against his worst fear of lizards, and taught him how to have pride in everything he does – a life Balram held with the utmost importance and praise – was the same life that later had to be mopped off the floor by his very own son. The negligence of human life desensitized Balram at a young age and strengthened his soul by realizing the dog-eat-dog society he lives in. Following his father’s death, Balram soon realizes he doesn’t only live in a dog-eat-dog society, but a dog-eat-dog home, too. Balram reminisces on his encounter with his brother and notes:
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 until he got tuberculosis and died on the floor of a government hospital…”
Balram recognizes that the women he used to live with before becoming a driver – especially his grandmother – use the men for hard labour to provide for the family, wearing them down to the bone. His grandmother’s further letters of blackmail demanding money from Balram are another clear example of selfishness within the family. This realization strengthens Balram’s soul even more by teaching him that he is truly alone and that no one – not even his own family – is willing or wanting to help guide him forward. If he is going to make it out of the darkness, Balram knows it will have to be on his own.
Consequently, the pain and suffering triggered Balram’s ambition to veer the direction of his predetermined life of poverty into something more. Balram uses the rooster coop as his analogy of life for the low-caste system in India. He explains:
Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench…The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. (Adiga 147) He compares the chickens to the people in his country as neither of them are attempting to escape their cages, “The very same thing is done with human beings in this country” (Adiga 148). He details how the coop is self-trapping and comes to a conclusion that only through individual action can one break out of the coop. This realization gives Balram a will and determination to escape the rooster coop. As Mr. Ashok’s personal driver, Balram is forced to partake on more roles in the job such as giving the Stork foot massages, cooking, cleaning, and almost having to be framed for a murder he did not commit.
When Balram finally starts cheating his master off his money, he expresses that, “Instead of guilt, what did I feel? Rage. The more I stole from him, the more I realized how much he had stolen from me.” (Adiga 196). This is a milestone in Balram’s life as he finally changes from the quiet, hard worker but begins to realize that he was facing numerous unnecessary humiliations, none of which were part of the job. He knows that the rich are treating him like an animal and that is a feeling that no amount of rupees can compensate for. Through the disloyalty towards his master, Balram demonstrates ambition by taking action in getting closer to his dream of escaping his servant status which is done by escaping the rooster coop.
As a result of taking action to liberate himself from the rooster coop, he achieves success. Balram murders his master, Mr. Ashok, and steals his bag enclosed with thousands of rupees. He uses his reoccurring analogy of the rooster coop to validate the murder of his master by stating, “I think the Rooster Coop needs people like me to break out of it. It needs masters like Mr. Ashok – who, for all his numerous virtues, was not much of a master – to be weeded out, and exceptional servants like me to replace them” (Adiga 257). The murder of Mr. Ashok was the final action that all of his previous small acts of cheating and stealing led up to. The money Balram gained from the murder provided him a chance at a new life filled with endless opportunities.
He chooses to start his own taxi business and explains, “Once I was a driver to a master, but now I am a master of drivers. I don’t treat them like servants – I don’t slap, or bully, or mock anyone. I don’t insult any of them by calling them “family,” either. They’re my employees; I’m their boss, that’s all.” (Adiga 259). This shows the contrast of his life and how far he has come. His life takes a complete turn, as he changes roles from servant to master. It also foils the characters of the rich and corrupted masters Balram encounters in his life, as it emphasizes his moral character. Balram achieves his success but still remains a fair, professional boss – nothing like the other masters in India.
His struggles drove Balram to fight for a life of freedom and dignity. He re-evaluates the actions he had to take in order to achieve this success and questions, “Are you a man or a demon?” and quickly justifies it with, “Neither, I say. I have woken up, and the rest of you are still sleeping and that is the only difference between us” (Adiga 271). Balram realized the dog-eat-dog world he was faced with and knew from a young age that it was every man for himself. He had no advantages above any single other person living in the low-social caste. He was equally impoverished but woke up and broke free.
Throughout the course of his life, there’s not a minute where Balram does not see suffering. Pushed by his dark life of having watched his parents die, and being stripped of his dignity by the rich, Balram becomes determined to raise himself up from the darkness and into the light. He takes the necessary action of murdering his master to carry out his plan of escaping the rooster coop.
His hardships are finally rewarded by the honest taxi company he establishes. Had Balram never been encaged, he would not appreciate the beauty of his freedom as much as he does now. One who has never seen a sunset cannot fully appreciate the sunrise, and one who’s never felt the storm cannot fully appreciate the sun. Balram’s seen both dusk and dawn and rain and sun which allows him to appreciate the light a little more than ever.