Balram comments that he continues to feel a sense of loyalty and closeness to the murdered Ashok and his former wife, Pinky Madam. He attributes many of his best ideas to Ashok and his family, explaining that he learned much of what he knows about life and Indian society from listening in on their conversations. In fact, he describes himself not as an original thinker, but as an original listener. The strong bond he still feels with Ashok reflects his belief that murder is an intimate act: in a way, the murderer becomes responsible for the victim’s life and knows more about him than the victim’s family. Balram alone knows how Ashok’s story ends.
Balram believes that the entrepreneur’s education depends largely on an ability to learn as much information as possible from one’s surroundings. Balram has learned a great deal from his employers’ conversations, which explains why he can still feel indebted to them despite their mistreatment of him. That Balram professes to feel a bond with his victim stronger than a familial bond ties into the troubling portrayal of family ties and intimacy in the novel as a whole.
Balram first meets Ashok in the city of Dhanbad, where he moves after his father dies from tuberculosis in a run-down hospital across the river from Laxmangahr. It is the only hospital in the region, yet Kishan and Balram arrive with their father only to find that there are no doctors there. A Muslim patient at the hospital explains that corrupt physicians and government officials scheme in order to avoid staffing village hospitals. All the patients crowd together and listen to his explanation with a certain pleasure, because, as Balram remarks, “stories of rottenness and corruption are always the best.” Their father dies on the floor of the hospital, never having seen a doctor.
The Muslim patient’s story fascinates the hospital visitors, even though it is the story of a corrupt system that has left all of them waiting in a hospital without doctors. The patients’ perverse interest in the subject of corruption reveals how totally the Rooster Coop oppresses the poor. They somehow take pleasure in hearing about the systems that keep them in permanent destitution, without access to basic health care. This is all also a pretty good joke: The White Tiger is itself a story of “rottenness and corruption.”
After Balram’s father’s death, Kusum arranges Kishan’s marriage to a local girl in exchange for a large dowry, and then sends both Kishan and Balram to Dhanbad to work in a teashop. Balram had worked in a teashop in Laxmangahr, but was dismissed for eavesdropping on customers and neglecting his work. Instead of scrubbing the floors like the other employees whom he calls “human spiders” because of their insect-like way of crouching and cleaning, Balram tries to learn as much as possible from tea shop customers. Seduced by the moneyed atmosphere of Dhanbad, a city grown wealthy from the coal industry, Balram tries to learn all he can about his new home by eavesdropping on miners who come to the café.
Kusum’s decision to marry off Kishan when he is barely old enough to support his wife is an example of the destructive role traditional Indian families play in the novel. Instead of waiting for her grandson to mature with an eye to helping him succeed longer term, Kusum marries him off to collect the dowry in the short term. Balram, meanwhile, tries to look after his own interests by paying special attention to miners who patronize the café, where he and Kishan work, knowing that they have insight into Dhanbad’s coal industry.
Balram’s “original listening” pays off. After hearing a miner discuss the high salaries earned by private drivers, Balram begs his family to pay for him to take driving lessons. Kusum Granny eventually agrees, so long as Balram promises to send the family his monthly earnings once he gets a job. Balram finds a driving instructor willing to take him on, though the man is skeptical that Balram, from a caste of sweet-makers, could ever be tough enough to be a driver. Balram proves his instructor wrong, however, and the instructor teaches him not only how to drive and fix a car; he also learns several life lessons about how to stand up for himself in the “jungle” that is the open road. As a reward for finishing the training, his instructor takes Balram to lose his virginity in Dhanbad’s red light district.
Even Kusum Granny’s help comes with crippling obligations. The driving instructor’s preconceived notions about Balram’s likely abilities based on caste show how crippling the caste system could be when it existed, and how it’s removal allowed individuals a degree of freedom that they didn’t have before. Yet this freedom is the freedom of the “jungle” – as the novel literally describes the open road. Balram, who sees himself as a white tiger, thrives in this world, and this “life” education fits with his belief that the most important lessons a young person should learn have nothing to do with moral or intellectual reasoning, but with developing survival skills. After these lessons, he has become “a man” – as his father wished him to become – both mentally, as he’s able to think his way out of trouble and into opportunity, and physically, as he’s able to confront the “jungle” of the road and also because he’s now had his first sexual experience. And, of course, since the India he depicts is one of a kind of hyper-capitalism, that first sexual experience is something he bought from a prostitute.
Unfortunately, Balram’s instructor can’t help him find a job, and so Balram strikes out to search for one on his own. He knocks on rich families’ doors to offer his services as an “experienced driver,” but is not rewarded for this so-called “entrepreneurial” behavior until at one house he meets Mr. Ashok. Ashok is the son of the Stork of Laxmangahr, and has recently returned to India from the United States.
Balram’s decision to promote his services as a chauffeur by going door-to-door, while impressive, would normally not be termed “entrepreneurship.” That he uses this word to describe his job search demonstrates how in his mind, entrepreneurship refers generally to any behavior requiring initiative, courage, and drive. Note also how this display of drive connects him almost immediately to the criminal and corrupt powers in India – the big-bellies, the eaters – and how Balram willingly joins up with a family that has preyed upon the poor of Laxmangahr (including Balram’s own family).
Ashok, the Stork, and Ashok’s older brother Mukesh Sir (also known as “the Mongoose”), question Balram about his caste and family background. Balram explains that his future masters ask these questions because they want to be able to locate his hometown so that they can punish his family members should he, Balram, step out of line after they hire him.
In Balram’s India, it is common practice for masters to punish a servant’s misdeeds by hurting the servant’s family. Balram comes to believe that this is another factor that contributes to the Rooster Coop: that not only does family itself trap a person in obligations, but that threats of violence against that family further limit what an “entrepreneurial” person can actually do.
Balram convinces the Stork’s family of his trustworthiness and they take him on as a driver. Life in their home is relatively comfortable. Although Balram has to share a room with the family’s “number one” (i.e. first choice) driver, Ram Persad, Balram now has a roof over his head and one of the khaki uniforms he admired for so long. Though he is officially a “driver,” he is at the family’s general beck and call, cleaning, cooking, performing odd jobs, and even massaging the Stork’s feet each night. During the massages, the Stork and his sons discuss coal, politics, and China. Balram listens intently, absorbing everything “like a sponge” as an entrepreneur should, but also because he feels himself to be part of the family and that his masters’ fate will be his own.
Balram’s ability to absorb bits and pieces of information from his masters’ conversation, even while carrying out the humiliating task of massaging the Stork’s feet, reflects his natural curiosity and intelligence. His desire to understand the family’s financial circumstances shows both his drive, but also that he already feels strongly bonded to his masters, is invested in their welfare, and despite himself has an instinct to serve them.
Balram describes his relationship with Ram Persad, the family’s “number one” servant. (Balram is “number two.”) Though they sleep in the same room, they live in constant hatred of one another and compete in every aspect of their lives, including the number of Hindu idols they pray to. Ram Persad sleeps on a bed, while Balram sleeps on the floor. Ram Persad drives Ashok and Pinky Madam around in the luxurious Honda City, while Balram drives other members of the household in the less impressive Maruti Suzuki. The family’s third servant, referred to as “the Nepali” (though his actual name is Ram Bahadur), sides with Ram Persad and enjoys tormenting Balram by making him bathe the masters’ lapdogs, Cuddles and Puddles.
The hostile relationships between the household’s three servants show how even those who are at the bottom of the Rooster Coop enforce its rules, rather than trying to free themselves. Instead of working together to better their quality of life, the servants engage in petty infighting in order to gain as much power over each other. They fight each other in order to get to serve in more sophisticated ways, rather than work together to be free. Even religion becomes a tool in the ongoing competition between Balram and Ram Persad, in their private show of false devotion.
Balram gets his first opportunity to drive Ashok and his wife in the Honda City when Ashok decides to visit Laxmangahr, their shared ancestral village. Balram drives the couple to lunch at the Wild Boar’s house. As Ashok and Pinky visit the Wild Boar in his beautiful home, Balram visits with his own family. During lunch, Kusum nags him for neglecting to send money, while praising his success and threatening to arrange his marriage. She serves him a rich chicken dish, which only serves to emphasize how thin and malnourished Kishan has become. Enraged by his family’s demands and their neglect of Kishan, Balram storms out of the house and climbs up to the Black Fort.
The great luxury of the Wild Boar’s estate is immediately contrasted by the poverty of Balram’s family. Note how Kusum continues to try to manipulate Balram, but also feels that his role of a servant is a powerful one (which also shows just how small Kusum’s dreams are). For Balram, Kishan’s overworked, underfed appearance is a visible representation of the exploitative demands he feels his family makes of him and his brother. Kusum is a destructive influence on her family, placing too many burdens on individual family-members and preventing them from advancing in life. Balram rejects her plans to marry him off, fearing that he will soon end up like Kishan. Remember, also, that as a child Balram was both in awe of and scared of the Black Fort. Walking up to the fort is a physical symbol of throwing off that fear.
Up near the fort, Balram looks down over Laxmangahr and spits. He compares this gesture to a poem by the Muslim poet Iqbal about God and the Devil. According to Balram, the Devil “was once God’s sidekick until he fought with Him and went freelance.” The Devil rejects God’s offer to become His servant, just as Balram spits down on the town below him, rejecting the circumstances into which God placed him and his own family’s seeming effort to lock him into an impoverished life of servitude. On the drive back to Dhanbad, however, Balram reflexively touches his finger to his eye when driving past a temple as a sign of faith and respect. His apparent devotion so impresses Pinky and Ashok that he repeats it multiple times, pretending that they have passed holy landmarks, all the way home.
Balram’s behavior as he stands near the Black Fort, and in the car ride back to Dhanbad, reflects his complicated attitude towards religion. On the one hand, he sets out to defy the plans God has laid out for his life and makes light of God’s influence. On the other hand, the show of respect he makes as the car passes roadside temples is so ingrained in him, he is not at first aware of doing it. Finally, the spitting as a representation of his desire to “go freelance” complicates the relationship between good and evil, God and the devil. His goal is to defy fate and experience independence, even if he has to behave immorally to do so. Anyone who seeks independence in Indian society, at least as Balram sees it, is aligned with both freedom and the Devil. Finally, in spitting at Laxmangahr, Balram is scorning both his hometown and his family, a sign that he is ready to fully part ways with both. As we know from the end of Chapter 1, eight months after this moment up at the Black Fort he kills his master. So this spitting, which symbolizes both his choice to go “freelance” and his breaking away from his past and family, is a critical moment setting him on that path.