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Social Darwinism and Evolution of the Underclass Identity: A Study of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger


Social Darwinism and Evolution of the Underclass Identity: A Study of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger

Akansha Shukla,

PhD Research Scholar

Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University

Delhi, India

                                                                                                                                                                                          The White Tiger

The paper would focus on the philosophy of self development and identity formation of the literary protagonists in the age of a neoliberal economy. As India saw a major shift with the new economic policies post 1990s, a cultural shift came along with the changing socio-economic structure of the country. The literary narrative of the globalized India shifted from the traumatic political canvas of wars and emergency towards the problematic emerging from a rapidly growing consumerist economy. The works of Indian Anglophone authors like Vikram Chandra, Aravind Adiga and Vikas Swarup have ordinary protagonists transgressing from the margins to the center of power. The journey of these novel figures becomes a literary representation of the complexities involved in making of the ‘self’ inside a new social and economic order.  The new capitalist order inherently propagates the philosophy of ‘social Darwinism’ and ‘personal evolution’ that is distinct and mutually exclusive from community and coexistence. The paper would critically engage with Aravind adiga’s The White Tiger, as this novel encapsulate India from the intimate perspectives of class, caste and sensitivity towards the local realities of the common man.


Globalization, Self-development, Neoliberalism, Identity, Evolution, Sociality

As the twentieth century came to an end, the Indian English Novels underwent a shift with respect to theme and style. The ‘new’ Indian novels like by Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss (2006), Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2004) and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (2006) by came across as post globalization master pieces, gloriously explaining local slangs and terms in their footnotes. The characters portrayed in the novels of the new millennium were intrinsically conscious of their local and the regional sensibilities. Also, the theme of the works had moved away from the national debacles of wars, Emergency and social critiques of old political structures.

It was the time to narrate the stories of a new India that came into being post the new economic policies came into effect and changed the dynamics of a socialist state model into a consumerist one. The late twentieth century saw the expansion of free market, construction of business and commercial hubs in metropolitans like Delhi, Gurugram and Bangalore. The economic reforms of liberalization and later globalization opened the country to new avenues of markets and opportunities to the effect that a country that had been so long plagued by the issues of caste, class and religion was lured into participating in a secular, and profit inducing free market trade.


The metamorphoses of Indian economy also brought new cultural parameters in which the individuals valued themselves. The opening up of global spaces required espousing a cosmopolitan identity and popular culture made its way through satellite television and World Wide internet. The exposure to a world of choices ensured that a common Indian household aspired for more consumption of luxury good so that the presence of international brands like Nike and Adidas and home utilities like TV’s, VCR’s and mobile phones were made essential to maintain a social class through newly formed capitalist regimes post 1990s.

The Indian English novels, at this point began to focus on the underclass or the margins that were supposed to be benefitting from the trickling down of profits, while in reality India was only creating its new bourgeois population. In context of the millennial Indian English novels, Leela Gandhi says, “it tends to imagine the nation as and through the middle-classes and their sensibilities”. Gandhi asserts:


The interesting-ness of the middle-classes is, of course, historically and culturally variable. So also, the Indian babu has changed considerably over time to become, over the last couple of decades, more and more mobile, affluent, globalised, metropolitan etcetera. Inevitably, he now wants this self image to be consolidated and confirmed in the novels he reads and sometimes writes. It could be said, a la Anderson, that he wants and is able to fictively imagine the nation as the embodiment of his aspirations.

The shuffling of social classes at this point gave birth to issues of cultivating new identities for the new socio-cultural order and modern spaces of labor like malls, BPO’s, private banks etc. Although glamorized as a milestone or the nation, the economic reforms only fueled a lopsided idea of ‘growth’ and ‘development’ where the rich became even richer and the poor were further pushed into penury. The protagonists of the new millennial novels are shown evolving through a process of ‘social Darwinism’. According to the theory of evolution by natural selection, in Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species in 1859, Darwinism is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. These changes allow an organism to adapt to its environment and help it survive and have more offspring.  In the context of post globalization Indian English novels, social Darwinism could be understood as imbibing various essential survival skills in an intrinsically market driven, and competitive economy. The free market induced Darwinism or what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “social Darwinism” or the dangerous “cult of the winner”, is an “ideology where self-centeredness, cut throat competition and cynicism is the norm of all action and essentially requires the individual to work towards self-growth and survival and espouse an identity free from the strictures of ethics and sociality”.

The act of social Darwinism gives rise to a related theory of Foucault’s“homo oeconomicus” or the economic man in the figure of the new underclass protagonist.  The new protagonist is shown to be driven thoroughly by self-interest and embodies almost a total rejection of the community, while evolving through class boundaries.

Balram Halwai, the protagonist of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008), is an incredible example of the theory of social Darwinism. The text highlights India's class struggle in the vein of dark humor and brings out the corruption and exploitation carried out by the rich against the poor in the country. It is a powerful narrative of a poor village boy making his journey through the power corridors of cities of Delhi and Bangalore.  

Balram belongs to the underprivileged caste of poor halwais in his village. He recounts his journey from the India of darkness to the India of light in his letters to the Chinese Premiere. As he transforms himself from an underclass and marginalized subject to a successful businessman, he narrates his journey of social transgression and the making of a successful entrepreneur.  He hails the tenets of the free market that have allowed him to change his underclass identity; most significant of which is self awareness and holding responsibility for self growth.

Proclaiming himself to be a self made man, Balram uses third person epithets to explore his identity like calling himself “a thinking man” and “an entrepreneur” (3), who has taken the onus of his own life. During his schooling years in Laxmangarh, he turns out to be a meritorious yet an unfortunate scholar. He learns his way through observing people, places and situations. Here learning becomes an essential ability to survive and modulate ones behavior and personality as information and technology becomes the most trustworthy product of the neoliberal market. Balram forays into other people's conversations as his primary learning tool, to understand how things and people around him are changing.

He recounts, I used my time at the tea shop in Laxmangarh to spy on every customer at every table, and overhear everything they said. I decided that this was how I would keep my education going forward—that's the one good thing I'll say for myself. I've always been a big believer in education—especially my own” (Adiga 43).

In his preparation to usurp the master’s supremacy over him, Balram learns new terms, meanings and lifestyle by closely observing his masters. His incompetence to announce simple yet alien English words like 'mall' and 'pizza', and his constant grappling with the new social space etiquettes like discos and malls, proves to be a crucial moment of self introspection.

Petersen points out as one of the central tenets of the philosophy of free market that “calls upon the individual to enter into the process of their own self-governance through the processes of endless self-examination, self-care, and self-improvement” (48).

In his critical observations of the elite and the new social circle Adiga’s protagonist has begun to eye for himself, he locates the differences between himself and 'others' for reworking on himself. Not unlike Bhabha’s subaltern subject, Balram begins to mimick his employer, Mr Ashok in every possible way; from clothes, opinions, appearance to dental hygiene, Balram even wants to imitate Mr Ashok's in his reckless debauchery. The mimicking of the master figure shows an opportunistic behavior that wants to imitate the culture of the powerful.

After setting a prototype in his employer Mr. Ashok; Balram apes him expertly to internalize his mannerisms. He wrought a new identity set against the figure of his master to propel his evolution. Each effort on the route to become like Mr. Ashok is a negotiation with the upper order for acceptance.  In order to forge a modern cosmopolitan identity, he learns the English language through picking up on the conversations of his employers, and marks this learning as a crucial step towards an assertive personality and self expression in the neoliberal city. In his letter to the Chinese Premier he writes,Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English. My ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok's ex-wife, Pinky Madam, taught me one of these things.”

As Balram couldn’t complete his formal education, his “half-baked” (9) schooling had no contribution to his success, nor he had a strong financial background to safeguard his future. Instead, the monetary success he comes to acquire is the fulcrum of him taking his own responsibility and turning himself into an entrepreneur. Therefore, as Balram proudly announces, his social mobility is an outcome of self-taught entrepreneurship “born, nurtured and developed” (4) from the very scratch. This creed of the newly liberated protagonists like Adiga’s Balram Halwai or Vikas Swarup’s Ram Mohammed Thomas, do not depend upon the government or state authorities for fair distribution of resources and opportunities to the marginalized; rather they endorse self actualization of opportunities that have long been denied to their class. As Balram advocates the case of personal revolution he says, “People in this country are still waiting for the war of their freedom to come from somewhere else—from the jungles, from the mountains, from China, from Pakistan. That will never happen. Every man must make his own Benaras” (261).

The protagonists of the new novels keep a fluid identity as they grapple with the past and present of the Indian society. In the case of Balram, his identity as a poor village boy working as a servant, and the ambitious persona of an entrepreneur coexist at the same time.  As Carla Freeman calls the requisite to survive in a post global society is the ability to put up a good performance, which requires, “ingenuity”, “self-invention” and most importantly, “adaptation” (261). Therefore Balaram successfully develops himself as a post global citizen and an entrepreneur as he readily assumes the identity that serves his purpose.  He transitions into various roles in a seamless manner; he assumes the part of a helper at a village tea shop as well as a chauffeur and house servant  at a posh household, and finally he assumes the role of his employer as he himself becomes Mr. Ashok, the owner of a taxi service company in Bangalore.

Balram is also able to dismiss his own caste identity without any existential crisis as he never associates with his native people, class or caste, but uses them to camouflage as a subservient, helpless underclass. Acing the tenets of social Darwinism, he subverts the caste system as he breaks away from the servitude of the elite and empowers himself as a successful entrepreneur. In his own words, he rejects the archetype of caste structure as redundant and instead substitutes it with class hierarchy: “To sum up—in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat—or get eaten up” (54).

Balram considers himself a rare species (evolved), a white tiger, as he could muster the courage to break away from the repressive orders of caste and feudalism. The capitalist markets serve as a stage where individual ambition can perform without paying any heed to the ideals of traditions, basic humanity and loyalty towards ones brethren. The individual is not only encouraged but celebrated to become productive and competitive from the rest of the population. Therefore, the one who is able to disassociate completely from their native identity as a part of family unit or a community become the best products of a materialistic economy as the social-filial relations become an impediment to ones growth where the circle of demand and supply is never ending.

Balram’s story depicts an underclass and marginalized protagonist successfully achieving the capitalist dream. However Balram’s success as an entrepreneur cannot be taken as an inspiring tale of economic emancipation. Adiga follows his journey of social Darwinism as a commentary on the inefficacy of a system, that calls itself world’s largest democracy, failing to provide basics like food, electricity and education to the poor of the country, while celebrating the corrupt electoral politics and foreign investments in the country. Adiga questions the idea of growth and development, of start-up success stories, where anti heroes like Balram are created as a result of constant oppression and mistreatment of the underclass.

Works Cited

Adiga, Aravind. The WhiteTiger. New York: Free Press, 2008.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. New York: Free Press, 1998.


Freeman, Carla. "The Reputation of Neoliberalism." American Ethnologist 34.2 (2007): 252-267.


Gandhi, Leela. "Indo-Anglian Fiction: Writing India,Elite Aesthetics, and the Rise of the 'Stephanian' Novel." Australian Humanities Review (1997). Web. 7 February 2011.


Nandi, Swaralipi. Narrating The New India: Globalization And Marginality In Post-Millennium Indian Anglophone Novels. Diss. Kent State University, 2012.


Petersen, A.. "Risk And The Regulated Self: The Discourse Of Health Promotion As Politics Of Uncertainty". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 32.1(2009): 44–57. Accessed 10 February 2021.