The White Tiger Summary
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is a novel about Balram Halwai, a man from a lower-caste background who becomes a successful entrepreneur in India.
- Balram narrates his life story in a series of letters to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. He tells of his humble beginnings in a village, his work as a driver for a wealthy family, and his eventual move to Bangalore to start his own business.
- Balram reveals that he murdered his former employer, Mr. Ashok, and is now a wanted man. He justifies his crime by saying that it was an act of self-defense and that he had no other choice if he wanted to escape the cycle of poverty.
- Throughout the novel, Balram reflects on the caste system in India and the corrupt nature of the country’s politics. He is critical of the government’s treatment of the poor and argues that the only way to escape poverty is to take matters into one’s own hands.
The White Tiger is framed as a narrative letter written over seven nights to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao; it is a tale of servitude, economic prosperity, and murder. The novel employs a first-person narrator, Balram Halwai, whose unique, sarcastic voice carries the reader through his life in “new India.” Balram writes the letter in response to a statement he heard on the radio, “Mr. Jiabao is on a mission: he wants to know the truth about Bangalore.” Balram is an expert on the truth about the harsh realities and hidden cruelties of India.
At the beginning of his letter, Balram tells Jiabao that he respects China because the leaders of the country have never allowed a foreign entity to rule China’s people. Balram admits that he has been a “half-baked” servant for much of his life, a man with little education forced to make his way in any manner he can. Balram decides to put his ideas to work and become an entrepreneur, which is a growing opportunity for people in new India. But his past comes back to haunt him; Balram reveals that he is wanted for questioning in the murder of Mr. Ashok, his former employer, whom he did murder. When the authorities release Balram’s information, they are looking for Munna, the blackish son of Vickram Halwai, a rickshaw puller. Balram claims that his family named him Munna (Hindi for “boy”) because they had no time to care about the naming of a child. His teacher, Mr. Krishna, gives him the name Balram (the name of Krishna’s [a Hindi god’s] sidekick). With his new identity, Balram begins to see India with new eyes.
Having lived in the rural poverty of his home village, Laxmangarh, Balram sees the irony in the proclamations of the nation’s prime minister, who paints India as a picture of economic prosperity to the foreign media. Balram is haunted by the image of his mother’s funeral at the shore of the Ganga River—the black, muddy ooze threatened to suck her body into its depths. Balram thinks that in a place like this there can be no liberation. But in the midst of poverty, Balram recognizes the humility of his father, who wants his son to have a better life than he had. Vickram insists that Munna be taught to read and write despite the taunting of others in the village. One day, an inspector comes to Balram’s school and has the children read for him. The teacher insists that Balram read for the inspector, and upon successful completion of the reading, the inspector presents Balram with a series of questions. Among these is to identify “The Great Socialist” who claims that any child in India can one day grow up to be the nation’s prime minister. He then asks Balram to name the creature that is rarest in the jungle, and Balram answers, “the white tiger.” Thus Balram earns his nickname when the inspector tells him that he is “an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots.”
Shortly after, Balram is forced to leave school and work to help support his family. He works in a tea shop, smashing coals and waiting tables. But things change when Balram moves to Dhanbad following his father’s death. He is given the opportunity to work for Thakur Ramdev (the Stork) as a driver for his son, Mr. Ashok. Balram is taken into the home of the Stork, a former landlord from a village near Balram’s home. The Stork and his son get into their car, a Honda City, and order Balram to take...
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them for a drive. Once in the car, they question Balram about his caste, and Balram knows that his future depends on how he answers this question.
Balram then explains the nature of the caste system in modern India: his family, the Halwais, had been in the order of sweet makers until the British left India in 1947. Afterward, the government became filled with corruption and power only came to those who had the nerve to fight. As a result, Balram’s family was pushed into poverty and his father became a rickshaw puller.
Balram answers the Stork that he is of the bottom caste, and the Stork decides to employ him to round out the representation of his staff. While in the employment of Mr. Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, Balram keeps his eyes and ears open and learns the inner workings of this upper-class family. He is made to share a room with Ram Persad, the number one driver in the home, but Persad is ever suspicious of Balram and what his employment will mean for his own future. Persad is frequently seen playing badminton with Pinky Madam and never fails to flaunt his preferred status in front of Balram. Soon Balram learns that Pinky Madam is a bit of an oddity in the home—she and her husband, Mr. Ashok, met in New York and married against the wishes of their families. The couple have brought back to India a sense of liberalism that becomes apparent in their words and actions: Mr. Ashok insists that Ram Persad and Balram be given new beds and separate rooms once he visits their living quarters and sees its sorry state. Mr. Ashok then realizes that he and Balram were born in the same village and insists that Balram take him and Pinky Madam there for a visit. Balram is proud to have his family see him doing well, but he is upset by the physical state of his older brother, Kishan, who appears as if life is treating him harshly.
On the fourth morning of his epistolary composition, Balram takes a break from relaying the details of his personal history to discuss the nature of democracy in India. The nation is currently in the midst of an election, and Balram says that “election fever” is one of the greatest plagues to have stricken the country. He says that the Great Socialist has been guilty of embezzling money from districts for the length of his ten-year term, but his crimes are continually covered by others in his administration. This is confirmed when the Great Socialist visits the Stork’s home and demands a million and a half rupees for his support of their business. Mr. Ashok and his wife disagree with these politics and decide to leave for Delhi with Mr. Ashok’s brother, Mukesh, and Balram comes along.
Once in Delhi, Balram is overwhelmed by the organization of the city—the housing blocks are arranged in a haphazard manner, the streets wind around grassy circles. Everywhere, poverty lines the streets. Balram continually gets lost driving around Delhi, and Mukesh quickly loses his patience and berates him. But when Balram looks into his rearview mirror, he sees in Mr. Ashok’s eyes a hint of pity.
Mr. Ashok’s increasing cynicism over life in India resurfaces one evening when he and Mukesh have Balram drive them to the President’s House. Balram cuts the car through the heavy pollution of Delhi and revels in the sight of the President’s House. He longs to make his own presence known, but he understands all too well his place in society. When the brothers return, Ashok comments on the irony of driving past a billboard of Gandhi when they have just given a bribe to the president.
Later that night, Mr. Ashok demands that Balram drive him and Pinky Madam to Connaught Place. Here, as Balram waits for them to return, he chats with the other drivers about the construction of the new train station. Balram likens the station to the most dangerous coal mine one has ever seen. When Ashok and Pinky return, they are quite drunk and take to foreplay in the backseat of the car. Nervous, Balram tries to concentrate, and suddenly Pinky demands that he let her drive. Ashok forces Balram out of the car, and the couple pulls away, only to do a U-turn and head straight for Balram. Pinky stops short and orders Balram back into the car. She pulls away, continuing her crazed driving, and cannot stop when something jumps into the road. Ashok claims that it was a dog but Pinky is convinced that it was a beggar child in the road. Ashok, however, will not honor her plea to check and take the child to the hospital. The next day, a man in formal attire arrives and tells the family that the judges have been taken care of and that all Balram needs to do is to play his part: he is forced to read a statement that implicates only him in the murder of the child. Balram ends up not going to jail, however, because the police receive no reports of the murdered child. Pinky, unable to deal with her own guilt and the corruption of the police and government officials, ends her marriage to Ashok, gives Balram a bribe, and returns to the United States.
After Pinky Madam leaves, Mr. Ashok turns to debauchery to deal with the ending of his marriage. Often drunk, Ashok has Balram take him to a hotel where he meets an exlover whom Balram presumes is a prostitute. Later, Ashok is taken to a hotel with a government official where they hire a European woman for the evening. Balram, however, defends his master’s integrity and claims that others have corrupted him. But Balram’s loyalty soon turns into rage as he begins to think about all that his employers have taken from him. He begins to steal from the family: siphoning petrol, picking up paying customers, and taking the car to a corrupt mechanic. Balram then takes to his own philandering and hires a prostitute with the stolen money that he has saved. He throws a fit when he realizes that the woman he has hired is a dyed blonde, and he is beaten by the hotel manager and thrown out the front door.
While Balram is driving Mr. Ashok and the Mongoose to the train station, Balram rolls down the window to offer a rupee to a street beggar. The brothers throw a fit, hollering about their donations to the temples around town. Balram realizes that the two are products of their rich, greedy father, and his loyalty to Ashok diminishes. Balram begins to have thoughts of major theft against his employer and rationalizes these thoughts by comparing the treatment that he receives to that which would be just and humane. One night, Balram asks for permission to leave the house and goes to Delhi’s red-light district. He reflects on the gross inequities of the city and makes plans to murder Mr. Ashok.
Balram puts his plan into action during a trip driving Ashok. Well out of the heart of Delhi, Balram maneuvers the car through the black mud and gloom of the city’s outskirts. He feigns a problem with the steering and gets out of the car to look at one of the front tires. He asks for Ashok’s assistance, and when his employer bends down to look at the tire, Balram smashes a Johnnie Walker Black bottle into the back of his head. He leaves Ashok on the side of the road as Ashok made him leave the beggar boy on the road some months ago. Balram takes the bag of money that Ashok has in the backseat of the car and begins his life as both a free man and a fugitive.
Balram settles in Bangalore—the city where all the ministers live—and makes his living by conducting a fleet of drivers through the city streets. Balram ends his letter to Wen Jiabao by stating that he believes all his actions have been worth the fear of getting caught because he has been able to live just for a while as a free man.