Was a murder the only way out for Balram in The White Tiger? The benefits of sociopathic thinking in a capitalist world
The White Tiger is born once in a generation. Similarly, Balram believes he was one of those rare creatures who is born only once in a generation — he is The White Tiger.
Balram comes from the Halwai caste living in the heartland of darkness. It is not explicit but he clearly lives in Jharkhand, speaks in something similar to Bhojpuri, and lives near the coal industry.
Rich men have the privilege to waste opportunities says Balram who has been snatched every opportunity in his life to grow. He is the smartest kid in the class, different from others, and called the white tiger by an academic dignitary who offers him a scholarship to study in a better school only to be thrown into working at a tea shop because his father couldn’t repay a debt of Stork. His circumstances are so appalling that he is not even allowed to study on a scholarship!
If we forget the whole society for a minute and only focus on Balram, we can see the magnitude of injustice. This child is already studying in kerosene lights amidst his family members snoring with little to no access to books or good teachers but this little luxury of going to a classroom is also snatched away from him for no fault of his.
It is very difficult for most of us who have had education in some form to imagine what life looks like without it. A life of constant self-doubt because others know more than you and you can never be sure of being correct because you don’t even know how to know if you are correct. Anyone can mock you. Anyone can deny you an opportunity. Most of the work requires some form of schooling so you are blacklisted from most of them. You are in short, not able to live the whole experience of being human and forced to skirt on the outsides.
Balram’s life can be defined by one word — servitude.
He sees his father die of Tuberculosis due to a lack of functioning hospitals in the city — working till the end of his days. His mother also dies pretty similarly in the book when he is a child. A lack of parent figure in Balram’s life also means a lack of love in his life. He has never had a parent who has showered on him unconditionally, his mother is gone too soon while his father works from dawn to dusk with no time to spare for his child. His grandmother’s love is a form of manipulation that she deploys when she wants something from someone in the family. The only person perhaps who he is somewhat attached to is his brother. This upbringing has a major role to play in his life — the lack of love in his life. All relationships in his life have a monetary transaction attached to them and his family is not above asking him to leave school for the debts they could not repay and this is how he keeps seeing relationship throughout his life — as a transaction because the only way to see relationships as not transaction is to feel the love within them which he does not.
So why does Balram or any other poor person in the country does not break free from their problems?
Balram could always start his own business, he could always return to education then why does he not. The great thinkers of our times say “ You make your choices”, “You choose your life” and other such sentences which remind a person that society owes them nothing and they are supposed to make their own destiny. It would have been completely fair for society to owe him nothing if it hadn’t taken so much from away his life and his many many previous generations.
There are two things that explain why Balram doesn’t immediately think of breaking free from his miserable circumstances. First is the rooster coop, humans in India are like hens in a rooster coop who even though they know they have been caged and know they are going to be killed don’t rebel because servitude is ingrained in their brain. If a human is taught that he can only serve right from his childhood and he has never seen anybody around him do anything else that how is he to know any better? Even when Balram does thinking of earning more his imagination stops at being a driver because this is what he has seen around him that and he is not wrong in going that path when it can lead to his house being the richest in the village. He hasn’t seen being anyone getting any richer.
A second and more important reason is conscience and human connections which are used against him. Balram sees his father on his deathbed andrealizes that his life was for nothing. He does not mean this in some artistic way where meaning of life is to create legacy but he truly feels that his father worked all his life and did not enjoy a moment of it. For what? Why continue? Because of emotions. He had a wife and two kids and he knows if he doesn’t work nobody will eat. His whole life and day-to-day activities revolved around only and only one thing — working enough to eat — and surviving and this survival was not evenfor himself but for his family. He could easily kill himself or work less but all this effort is for his kids and is even more heartbreaking that despite everything, he is still not able to send his kids to school. Balram and Stork both understand these handcuffs very well. In the book, Stork repeatedly asks Balram if he sends money to his family or not just to check if he is tied to them or not because if he is not sending them money then he doesn’t care about them and wants money for himself and a person who wants money for himself is a dangerous person to hire as a servant and should be let go. Servitude, not greed is the virtue in a servant. Balram is also inside the rooster coop because of these emotions. If he runs away with the money from his master then he knows the fate of his family. This is not far-fetched. Stork is known to do this in the past.
As humans, we are tied together by love and conscience, otherwise, it will only take us all a moment from turning our civilization into a jungle. Imagine every person starts stealing and lying and killing then what will be left with? No families. Just some individuals fighting and dueling each other and finally killing each other off. Society runs on love and conscience and this exact emotion stops Balram from running away.
I will take a deviation here to look at the convergence of economic assumptions of capitalism and sociopathy. Capitalism at no point preaches sociopathy but the assumption of perfect rationalism borders on it. If a person only thinks what is profitable for him then undercutting others is what a rational human being will do. Of course, we have laws and regulations to protect but most importantly it is conscience towards other human beings that stops us from killing our competitors or manipulating people around us even when we could get away from it. Sociopathy on the other hand is a condition wherein a person is born without the ability to love. Brain images show that these people literally lack the reactions in their nervous system which ordinary humans feel when they feel and warmth. Conscience is a part of love and empathy which also resultantly a sociopath cant feel. Doing wrong to a loved one does not make a sociopath feel guilty because there is no love in the first place. Capitalism is tremendously advantageous for a sociopath because capitalism respects and rewards his lack of doing things only for himself without caring about anyone around him. He is able to thrive. This is often why we become shocked when we see sociopathic CEOs do things that are beyond our understanding for-profits such as adulteration of food, selling tablets to anorexic girls, selling fairness creams, dividing societies in the name of partisan politics but the economic system rewards them allowing them to thrive. It has also been found in research that sociopaths don’t thrive in Eastern cultures where collective responsibility is more rewarded instead.
Returning back to our discussion Balram is someone with emotions and conscience till now.
There is a sunset in the book which Balram loves to look at as a child. We often do not understand what a privilege it is to enjoy beauty and art. The wealthier people get the more they have time to indulge in beaty to nourish their souls. The poorer people are the less meaning things make to them which are not around their survival. Art is just paint, novels are just imaginary, nature is just nature that needs to be cultivated for food.
But Balram loves the colors of the sun. He comes to know that life has more to offer than the slavery he does every day — there is more joy than he knows — he doesn’t have it yet — but it does exist. This is something that others of his family either don’t know or have denied to themselves. This sense of appreciation takes a bigger leap when he comes to Delhi. He realizes there is so much that life has to offer but he can not consume. Wishes in life come from realizing beauty which is synonymous with luxuries — dressing up, going out, looking at a painting only come to one’s mind when one wants to indulge their senses. This is the reason why there is at least a wish of freedom in Balram which his brother has long given up.
In the beginning, Balram takes the first pragmatic step towards his freedom — not getting married. He does not have a problem with marriage per se but he understands very well that marriage will act as a burden in his life and make it tougherto escape. Most people have found themselves themselves caged due to the institution of marriage and kids and although this has changed now with women earning which in fact can allow men more freedom to pursue their dreams but Balram doesn’t come from a society where women earn.
He also truly lives his master or so he tells himself. He believes Ashok is a good person who treats him better than others treat himlike Mongoose or Stork treat him like not making him massage their legs or not wanting to know his caste. When affection is available less whatever little we get seems like a lot. This does give him some pride in his work.
This too starts to change as realities unfold.
Ashok is an America-educated Indian who wants to treat his servant more respectfully like not asking him to open the door for him and talking to him informally too sometimes and laughing, everything that is too much to expect from the son of Stork. Ashok believes Balram is half-baked because of his half-baked English and knowledge, blissfully ignorant of the fact that his own father made him leave school and it is the sweats of these half baked that has allowed Stork to be rich(and coal corruption) which in turn allowed Ashok to study in the United States and live a life of luxury where he goes about wishing to empower others when he is done nothing of significance in life to pass such a judgment and be saviors to others. As time passes, we realize the façade of niceness is only for the good moments and only as long as it conveniences Ashok. When Pinky runs over a child, Ashok though protests a bit but eventually gives in to making Balram sign papers owning his wife’s crimes. A scene straight out of Salman Khan’s life. This moment is also when Balram realizes Ashok is no different from Mongoose just better looking and better speaking and wishing to be egalitarian like Americans — a wish he throws straight out of window when it is not convenient for him. When Pinky leaves Ashok we also see Ashok leaning in into Balram’s care and treating him like a nobody as soon as his brother returns making it clear that he is not a human entity in his life which finally makes Balram realizes he is not working for a ‘good’ man, he is working for a rich man who is an upholder of the status quo. In addition to this, in the book when Balram gives a one rupee coin to the beggar both Mongoose and Ashok are angry with him and Ashok hits back with “We annually give to charity and the taxes are so damn high” while he employs separate drivers for separate people in the family. It hurts his ego to be reminded that he isn’t doing half as much he should be doing for the down trodden.
Pinky on the other hand has all the qualities of a person with a superficial savior complex. She is kinder to Balram than anyone else but also judgmental of his country habits. At the same time, she is the only one who feels that Balram does not deserve to live his life like this serving them and tells him to ‘save himself’ because she did save herself from her terrible past. Getting out of our misery often makes us feel that others too can do this and they are just not trying enough. She comes from a position of privilege where she does not understand his true position and only looks at it from her own lens of piety. The difference between Pinky and Balram is the psychological and cultural brainwashing that Balram has been fed since his birth. She is also not above making Balram sign the papers though but the first one to tell him he won’t go to jail because of her guilt. But ultimately it is Pinky who subconsciously affects Balram. It is not her words but her actions. She looks at him as a human making him conscious of his looks — no one before her had cared how he looks — he was just an animal till now.
Her second more important action was leaving Ashok. A woman leaving his husband was something he had never heard of because all women he knew did not earn for themselves hence it was unthinkable it could happen — but it could. When you see something unthinkable in life you realize there is so much unthinkable possible in the world which you had not thought of — like becoming free — the way Pinky did.
We also see his mental health fall not in the usual way of depression but in the coping mechanisms his mind uses. Other drivers have started talking about him that he mutters to himself sitting alone in the car.
He starts making small allowances for himself by various money-making schemes like using Ashok’s car for taxi service, selling Ashok’s petrol, exaggerating the bills, and mind you there is not the tiniest guilt. Guilt surfaces when we feel we have done something wrong but Balram realizes that this is his money — he is owed this money for now and for generations which Stork’s family has deprived him of. The system is designed to keep him poor.
The turning point comes in the book when he badly wants to sleep with a Russian prostitute with ‘blonde hair’ and despite accumulating all the money he can to pay and paying working-class surcharge on top but he is made to sleep with a woman who has ‘dyed her hair blonde’. He realizes that no matter what he does till he is a servant it remains his identity and the best-case scenario in his life is to get leftovers of the rich. In the movie, this scene is adapted for mature sensibilities(not sleeping with blonde haired women cant raise everyone’s sympathies)where Balram realizes that best-case scenario for him is a jhuggi hut in Delhi that is if he doesn’t get sick and manages to save something. After a lifetime of work that is all, he can afford and he is obviously not happy. The proponents of growth are not people he will lend his ears to — he does not want leftovers — he does not want just one step up on the ladder — he believes he deserves the top and there is no reason he should not have it least of which is being born in unfavorable circumstances and this was when he decides to get out of the rooster coop.
He has already started hating Ashok who is looking for his replacement. The final nail in the coffin is when he rationalizes his family’s death should he leave. He feels their life is not meaningful anyway and more of them only means more of their family going through a life of drudgery and captivity. His freedom will make more meaning than all of their lives combined. This feeling here how much ever rationalized is truly conscienceless. To be okay with the death of one’s family for a better life is not something most people can come to terms with. But Balram does and this is precisely why he calls himself — The White Tiger — Born only once in a generation. He is the one who has woken up while others are sleeping.
Just to be clear Balram is not a sociopath in any way, it takes him a long time to come to this point. He justifies his servitude for thelongest time by calling Ashok a good man only to realize when things go wrong — he is expendable and replaceable.
In the book, he justifies killing Ashok because one he needs to buy time to run, and second he feels he might as well get some revenge for the repercussions his family is going to face after this.
But he kills his humanity and numbs his emotions to kill Ashok and only and only that makes him free.
Freedom comes at the cost of his humanity, which is something that can stop all of us with a conscience but leaving conscience behind and embracing sociopathy is the only way he could thrive.
Our capitalistic society also readily accepts this about him. As long as he creates value in the IT industry through his company nobody cares about his background or how he treats his family.
So though, conscience and love make the world go round, family bonds and emotions can often be used by cultural and psychological handcuffs to keep people in their place and these forces are so strong that much of the world still does not know that it can be free. It takes a sociopath to break those bonds of emotions. Or in Adiga’s words — it takes crime and politics to be free. There is no million-dollar game show you can win.