The Queer and Gender in Adiga’s ‘The White tiger’

“I swear by God, sir- all thirty six million and four of them- The moment I saw his face, I knew: This is the master for me.”
-Balram Halwai

Arvind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’ published in 2008, by Harper Collins, was his debut novel. The Man Booker Prize winner, is a post colonial novel about Balram Halwai, who rises from the “darkness” and establishes his identity through transgressions. The anti protagonist narrates the contradictions between light and dark India, through the story of his rise to entrepreneurship, via his letters to Chinese premier Mr. Jiabao. The novel is set in the patriarchal post colonial capitalist India.

About the patriarchal capitalist society, Luce Irigaray writes,
“The trade that organizes patriarchal societies takes place exclusively among men. Women, signs, goods, currency, all pass from one man to another or suffer the penalty of relapsing into the incestuous and  exclusively endogamous ties that would paralyze all commerce”
The nature of relationship amongst men in the economic sphere is thus described as homosexual and all heterosexual relationships in the male economy are called pretentious. It is because if homosexuality was to be acknowledged in the sexual realm that would mean complete exclusion of women. And if women were to be excluded there will be nobody to exercise dominance on, leading to the rupture of the patriarchal society. Irigaray terms this the”Sovereign authority of pretense”. Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ is an embodiment of Irigaray’s theory where the female characters only seem to be placed in the text to keep the men from transgressing the boundaries of heteronormativity. The master -servant relationship between Ashok and Balram places them in homosocial context that ask them to explore same sex desire, not necessarily sexual, but are kept from transgressing by the dramatic difference in their socioeconomic status and heteronormative placement throughout the text.

‘Queer’ categorises all behaviour that transgresses the norms of the patriarchal society as we know it. Dean and Lane write,
“Rather than offering a politics based on individual identity, this school of thought advocates a politics based on resistance to all norms—a politics that connects gender and sexual oppression to racial discrimination, class inequities, ethnic hierarchies, and national chauvinism. Espousing a far-reaching politics suspicious of all norms,this strand of queer theory divorces sexuality from identity”
Throughout the epistolary novel, Balram depicts his attempts to win Ashok’s approval and affection. Balram is drawn to Ashok the first time itself when he sees him on the balcony and he immediately knows “this will be my master”. The desire for companionship displayed by Balram is unmatched by the desire for companionship of any male character for a female. The male desire for intimacy with a female is “less authentic” (Fernando Sanchez) than Balram’s desire for an intimate relationship with a male character. When Pinky Madam leaves Ashok, his older brother, Mukesh, decisively informs him about the need for him to remarry soon. The remarriage is necessitated because otherwise Ashok and the family will loose agency in the society. It is because as Pinky left, she exercised her agency and if Ashok stays unmarried it will be a display of the power the woman holds over him. The remarriage is not out of a desire for spiritual or sexual companionship and hence only instrumental and not authentic. Irigaray points out how the patriarchal society would never want to go back to “red blood relationships” because as soon as women enter the realm they will loose power.

En route from Dhanbad to Delhi when Ashok wishes to drive, he exchanges seats with Balram and there is a moment of  shared physical intimacy where ashok’s stuble rubs on Balram’s cheek. Balram takes in the scent of Ashok’s aftershave and describes the scent as “fruitlike” and “deliscious”. He never refers to the perfume of Pinky or Uma the same way. He in fact detests Uma’s perfume perhaps because Ashok knowingly transgresses the normative marriage and also seeks companionship in her instead of him. It is almost as if Balram feels it to be his duty to keep Ashok from straying.
“On the way back, the two of them were talking at the top of their voices; and then the petting and kissing began. My God, and he a man who was still lawfully married to another woman! I was so furious that I drove right through four red lights, and almost smashed into an oxcart that was going down the road with a load of kerosene cans, but they never noticed”
The Mongoose’s command, “Don’t do this, Ashok,” as he notices Ashok putting himself in his driver’s place is as much a condemnation of the master crossing over to the role of servant as it is of Ashok developing a boundary- less relationship with Balram—one where the two men can empathize with each other through smell, taste, touch, and sight. Balram’s description of the Mongoose as an “old-school master” who “knew right from wrong” confirms the immorality of same-sex intimacy’s permeable borders because not only will it destroy the master-servant hierarchy but also threaten patriarchy. The condemnation of this companionship is firstly, because internalisation of power by the subject is important to maintain hierarchy. A companionship between them will threaten the socio-economic hierarchy. Secondly, if traces of queer desire are not immediately contained then it will threaten the patriarchal structure of the society. If homosexuality is practiced in society then the penis becomes a point of pleasure and the phallus comes under the danger of loosing power. Irigaray points out how it is necessary for sustaining the patriarchal capitalist structure that men be excluded from the realms of pleasure and only concentrate on trade while pleasure should be left to women because they are assumed unfit for seriousness.

Balram’s selfhood is constantly negated when Pinky and Ashok make jokes at his expense for their amusement. Or the time when he was eager to comfort his master when Pinky left and he saw Ashok lift his hand and prepared for its touch but he wrapped his hand around the Mongoose instead and to add to the negation says “I had nothing but this driver in front of me for five nights. Now at last I have someone real by my side: you”. Balram’s sense of betrayal is increased manifold when he sees that Ashok does not interrupt once when Pinky almost ran him over. He  forgives him on account of his drunkenness and later he is more amused by the shared understanding between himself and Ashok when the accident occurs rather than taken aback by the accident itself. The subaltern understands the one in power in a stark contrast. Though when Ashok does not consider informing Balram that the later in fact will not be going to jail for taking the blame of the accident, Balram’s sense of negation is increased manifold. It is this constant negation of his identity that causes him to want to shout “Balram is here too!” when he is walking around the President’s house listening to important men make important decisions.In the end, Balram is willing to suffer through the painful consequences of his admission of guilt for a single moment of intimate contact free of verbal or physical violence—a moment, which, were it to exist, would threaten to dissolve long-established dichotomies. Fernando Sanchez writes,
“The relationship that the two men [Balram and Ashok] have with each other can not be seen  as “loving” by any means. My point is to show that historically, it has been difficult to describe or to explore a power relation between two men as in any way queer.”

Sanchez says the using of  women as a conduit to encourage male heterosexuality is not new. He brings to notice,Supurna Bhaskaran’s  details in ‘Made in India: Decolonizations, Queer Sexualities,Trans/National Projects’- there was a constant fear by the British in India during colonization that the men stationed there would succumb to homosexuality without the presence of their wives or any other avenues for sexual release. She writes, “A popular cure for men (both Indian and British, civilians and soldiers) who might deviate from normative sexuality or ‘pukka-ness,’ was sending them to female prostitutes”. Adiga similarly pays little or no attention to the role of women in neoliberal Indian society. The female exists only to elide same sex relationships and making heterosexuality normal. The prostitutes become a means through which the men can channel their sexuality foregrounding the prevention of same sex exploration. There is a hint of homosexuality when Vitiligo Lips suggests the alternative of male prostitutes for Ashok but it is is no way materialised or approved and is only seen as carnal.

Queer still remains a term of abuse and not all those whose orientations we may regard as queer will identity with the word. Sarah Ahmed articulates what Adiga displays in the text-
“The word (or at least one interpretation of it) speaks to both the desire for same-sexintimacy embedded in these non-sexual moments, as well as the oppressive nature of the social frame in which they occur. In this way, same-sex desire for intimacy can coexist with sexual attraction to other opposite-sex characters”
The same sex desire for intimacy or sexual attraction is however condemned by the text  to exist on its own because it will rupture the patriarchal capitalist society. This becomes evident in the negation of the agency of the women  who only function under surveillance and exist only to further the heterosexual relationship through which the men uphold their dominance in the society.

-Irigray, Luce. When the Goods Get Together. Literary Theory: An Analogy. 1988. Print
-Sanchez, Fernado. Queer transgressions: Same-sex Desire and Trans gendered representations in Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Transcripts 2, 2012. Web.

Submitted by:
Sreoshi Bagchi
English Hons.., Third year.




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