Balram Halwai is a protagonist in Aravind Adiga’s epistolary novel The White Tiger, in the sense that he is the primary driver of events in the story, and due to the fact that he faces great challenge and adversity, and overcomes the difficulties in his path. However, it is that nature in which he conquers his challenges that Balram diverges from the typical role of a protagonist; in that he climbs society through immorality and selfishness, by using others as rungs; this is in stark contrast to a typical protagonist of courage and honesty. Therefore, it is due to Balram’s “conquering” of India’s societal restrictions that allows the reader to experience admiration, yet it is due to the nature of his ascent that readers can, and do, experience disgust.
Protagonists are generally honourable, selfless characters who are the main focuses in stories, and generally are the primary forces of progression in the narrative. Balram, from birth, has seemingly insurmountable social restrictions (confining him to be a sweet-maker for his life) placed upon him in the form of caste; a pre-determined and pre-defined role within society based upon one’s birth. Although, unlike the hundreds of millions of other Indians in his position, Balram finds himself determined to escape the “darkness” of India, and to “live like a man”. However, he is far from possessing the common character traits of regular protagonists. Balram’s role as a protagonist is atypical in the fact that he is an unprincipled, unethical character who finds completing jobs “with near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity” to be “profoundly enriching experiences”. This is not to say that Balram, as a character, is necessarily evil. He was forced by necessity to either conform to social expectations, or to “break out of the coop”; to be “a freak, a pervert of nature… a White Tiger.”
Readers are able to admire Balram not due to his actions, but due to his extraordinary efforts to rid himself of the shackles of the “zoo” that is India’s oppressive, primitive social structure. Balram’s story is, iniquitously, a story of success, and it is this success, as well as the fantastic lengths to which Balram goes to achieve it that elicits within readers feelings of a somewhat morbid respect. The extent of Balram’s success is emphasised throughout the entirety of the story. His description of his village of Laxmangah as “Electricity poles – defunct. Water tap – broken. Children – too lean and short”- contrasts with his numerous descriptions of his current house, with Balram even bragging about having “the only toilet in Bangalore with a chandelier!” This contrast is a visible representation of how far Balram has ascended within India society; an exaggerated depiction of an inherent drive within all people; not to simply endure, but to advance –in this case, within society-, and it this depiction which readers can feel a primal sense of envy and desire, and subsequently, admiration. Furthermore, Balram’s willingness to “see his family destroyed – hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters”, in order to be “a free man”, whilst sickening, demonstrates a tremendous determination which cannot help but elicit admiration – and abhorrence- within the reader. Readers are likely to experience feelings of admiration towards Balram due to both his readiness to do whatever it takes succeed, as well as due to the nature of his success.
The character of Balram is also likely to conjure feelings of disgust and contempt within readers. His lack of morals are exhibited throughout the novel, and continuously escalate. His willingness to lie to The Nepali guard of the Stork’s mansion, stating that he had “four years’ experience” as a driver, whilst certainly not a heinous act, is a simple demonstration of his indifference to behaving unscrupulously in order to achieve his goals. This indifference is further consolidated in his confession that he “hadn’t sent any money home for the past two months”. His unethicalness reaches a precipice -after dozens of examples throughout the novel- when he “rammed the bottle down…. The crown of [Ashok’s] skull”, killing his master and stealing seven-thousand rupees. This gradual escalation of Balram’s dishonourableness occurs alongside his steady corruption that comes with his social climb, and is most evident in the depiction of Balram becoming Ashok, both literally, re-naming himself as “Ashok Sharma,” upon his flight from authorities, and in nature, giving a rupee to a “homeless man and woman” and their “baby boy”, but “check[ing] to make sure it wasn’t a two-rupee coin”, directly after having stolen seven-thousand. This scene is eerily reminiscent of Mukesh’s (The Mongoose) tirade about Balram supposedly stealing a “single rupee” after having “paid half a million rupees in a bribe”. This scene in particular represents, sickeningly, either how far Balram has had to fall to achieve his success, or, how immoral he had been all along.
The White Tiger tells the tale of protagonist Balram Halwai, a man who escapes the almost insurmountable social constraints of India and achieves what most would consider success. The remarkable drive which Balram has, as well as the exceptional feats he goes to, to attain success will likely elicit feelings of admiration within the reader, yet, at the same time, will also evoke conflicting sensations of disgust and contempt.