Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger explores the contrasting threads of corruption and morality in Indian society, exposing the depravity and exploitation that pervade the modern state. Juxtaposing the incommensurate worlds of “Light” and “Darkness”, Adiga demonstrates that in a society of only “two castes”, decency and prosperity are unable to coexist. The oppression of the land where the “black river” flows is shown to provide few opportunities for a life of morality, whilst the larger web of societal corruption is depicted as being integral to the achievements of the “men with big bellies”. Adiga ultimately demonstrates that once success has been found, morality becomes a choice, rather than a luxury.
Describing a rural populous in anything but “paradise”, Adiga suggests that the bleak lives of those in India’s Darkness demand a sacrifice of integrity in order to ensure survival. As narrator Balram Halwai describes the “defunct” resources and support systems of his home in Laxmangarh, Adiga illustrates the hopelessness of a people with “nothing left…to feed on”. Just as Balram struggles to extricate himself from the “millipede” of his sleeping cousins, liberation from the Darkness is deemed impossible. Adiga utilises the symbolism of the Ganga, a renowned river of “rich, dark, sticky mud” that stunts the growth of surrounding vegetation just as the lives of those in the Darkness are prevented from flourishing. When Balram offers the harsh reality that his parents “had no time to name [him]”, the reader is presented with a truly grim image of the lives of a people devoid of success or even comfort. Adiga asserts that in an environment of such oppression, survival is the only productive motivation. In describing the actions of his school teacher, who had “stolen [their] lunch money” as a “man in a dung heap” who shouldn’t be expected to “smell sweet”, Adiga’s desire to excuse a lack of principles in an exploited people is made clear. Contrastingly, the steadfast morals of Vikram Halwai, “a man of honour and courage”, may have ensured him a “sweet” reputation, but ultimately meant that he was left to live as a “donkey, without respect, dignity or prosperity. Adiga depicts the “Darkness” as being devoid of the “light” of hope or opportunity, with success rare and morality a luxury that few can afford.
In The White Tiger, the societal corruption that pervades India’s rapid economic growth is seen to be integral to the success that is shared by those in the “Light”. The malfeasance that perpetuates corruption in all facets of “new India” is demonstrated by Adiga to drive the economic growth of the modern state, bringing advantage to all those with big bellies and maintaining the entrenched disadvantage of the lower castes. As the true depravity at the root of India’s “parliamentary democracy” is exposed through the farcical voting system in Laxmangarh, Adiga highlights the lack of morality in the way that officials can manipulate society to manufacture individual success. The dark humour and irony with which Balram jokes that he is “India’s most faithful voter” makes clear to the reader that such corruption is commonplace in a nation where one must be “straight and crooked” to ascend the ranks of status and success. The calamitous effects of such an immoral approach to achievement are depicted in the reprehensible conditions of the rural hospital, where Vikram dies from entirely curable tuberculosis. Adiga’s jarring language in describing how Balram “mopped [his] fathers infected blood off the floor”, a luxury only available after he “bribed the ward boy 10 rupees” conveys the disgraceful nature of a society lacking in integrity. As Balram finds employment with the “Stork”, once a marauding landlord of Laxmangarh, the reader is given further insight into the ways which those of the “Light” obtain their wealth. As the Stork and Ashok bribe politicians in order to protect their dishonest coal business, they are depicted as completely lacking in principles. The destructive power of manipulating India’s political and legal spheres is reinforced by the ease with which the Stork can cast aside decency to shift blame onto Balram for Pinky Madam’s hit and run. Adiga therefore suggests that a life of power and luxury serves only to reduce the influence of an individual’s innate sense of morality, resulting in a class lusting after success, whatever the consequences.
Whilst Adiga expresses the depravity that lies behind India’s booming economy, he demonstrates that for some of those born into privilege, morality can be a choice. When the primal need for survival that dominates the lives of those in the Darkness is absent, some in the Light have the luxury of tempering their judgement with principle and morality. Adiga emphasises this in the character of Ashok, Balram’s master, whom he dubs “The Lamb”. Just as this pseudonym contrasts with the more predatory labels of the “raven” and “wild boar”, Ashok’s morals set him apart from other characters in the “Light”. He shows an interest in the wellbeing of his servants, expressing his sadness at the decrepit nature of Balram’s living conditions. These signs of integrity are mirrored in the behaviour of his wife, Pinky Madam, who resents the corruption and inequality that pervades Indian society. As Balram demonstrates his surprise that “the lady in the short skirt is the one with the conscience”, Adiga conveys to the reader the way that prosperity affords people the luxury of a conscience. The shift in Balram’s attitude towards integrity and its worth is also visible as he ascends from “Darkness” to “Light”, subverting the narrative of servant and master. As he struggles with poverty and life in the shadows of the “men with big bellies”, he readily casts aside his principles at any chance to improve his position, culminating in the violent murder of Ashok. However, Adiga endorses the notion that success provides opportunities for morality as his narrator states that in the Light, “if a man wants to be good, he can be good”, unlike in the abject poverty of Laxmangarh. The reader observes Balram’s naivety in attempting to convince himself that his newfound ability to act on his principles excuses the crookedness of his past, as Adiga juxtaposes the ease with he pays off the police after one of his employees accidentally kills a man with his apparently earnest attempt to help the family of the victim. The White Tiger therefore demonstrates that morality is able to take root in the psyche of some of those in the “Light” only due to the security created by the success they are party to.
The place of morals in a largely corrupt Indian society is explored in Adiga’s social commentary, as he suggests to the reader that without success, morality is not always a productive motivation. Just as Adiga emphasises the disparity in prosperity between the “Light” and “Darkness” of new India, he makes clear the difference inn opportunities to “smell sweet” that exist for those in abject poverty and those with plenty to “feed on”. Ultimately, Adiga illustrates that in an India of two castes, the coexistence of success and morality is a rarity.