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 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...
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