Redefinitions of India and Individuality in Adiga's the White Tiger

By Waller, Kathleen | CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Redefinitions of India and Individuality in Adiga's the White Tiger


Waller, Kathleen, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture


Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger challenges definitions of Indian identity with a narrator who comes from a nameless and birthday-less past with a written fate as a member of the lower caste. The servant rises in power by using the very nothingness he comes from as an advantage and addresses his agenda to China's premier. The narrator becomes something in not only Indian but also global society under the symbolic pseudonym of "The White Tiger" as he appeals to China and speaks with understanding of the United States and world economies. Despite a lack of formal education, he knows multiple religions and languages as well. The fact that the narrator is also a murderer is not excusable but shows the reader that the embrasure of nothingness in India is not fully possible at this time. Therefore, Adiga is both asking Indians to veer away from their fated paths while also changing economic, political, and social policies. There must be a way for individuals within society to seek redefinition through both lawful and ethically correct means. The concept of an empowering nothingness is an inherent concept of literary deconstruction in Jacques Derrida's "Differance." Derrida's play on the French differer, meaning both "to differ" and "to defer," allows for a link in "signif[ying] nonidentity" and "the order of the same" (385). Differance with an "a" becomes a philosophy rather than a simple word. The neologism "indicates the middle voice" (385), thereby asking the reader to allow dissonant suspensions of known truths defined by societies. Individuals' free will is not just an action here, but a state of being and the ability to change what one's being is defined as. Nonidentity becomes a form of empowerment.

In The White Tiger Adiga is first defined through nonidentity by the fact that he has "never been given a name" (10) nor "know[n] his exact age" (12). He has always been called "Munna," or "boy," which his teacher claims is "not a real name" and subsequently names him "Balram ... the sidekick of the god Krishna" (10-11). Although there is consideration through the novel of the narrator's place in society that is dependent on his position in India's caste system, his lack of name challenges a strict fate through its potential for mutability. The teacher already challenges the notion that we are born into identities by labeling Munna with the new name of Balram and tells Balram that his own name is Krishna, therefore placing Balram as his "sidekick" in the classroom. The new name may be a step up from "boy" in the hierarchy, but a "sidekick" is not only below another by definition but also at the mercy of the other's fate. "Balram" is an elevated status of a name with less freedom of identity. However, Balram's father seems to have no care what his son is called: "'If it's what he wants, then we'll call you that'" (11). He does not attempt to design Balram's fate, and we are suddenly aware that the narrator need not be caught in the continuous cycle of father and son that dominates class definitions worldwide.

Nonidentities in literature, especially through nameless or multiply named characters, have been precursors to actual social changes in the past. Ralph Ellison's nameless narrator in Invisible Man preceded the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (on Ellison, see, e.g., Bourassa). The often "complex" and "ambiguous" novel creates "an alternative basis for African American social struggle after the Brotherhood experience, its continuing (if muted) affirmation of possibilities for social reform, and its forecast of the actual content of civil rights actions in the decades after its publication" (Hobson 355). Like Adiga, Ellison does not spell out a solution for US-America's race problems in the 1960s. Instead, he focuses on individuals and the energy that can be created through abstraction. Adiga references his book as a general influence in his writing, while remarking that "as a writer, [he] do[es]n't feel tied to any one identity" (284). …

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