The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai’s life as a self-declared “self-made entrepreneur”: a rickshaw driver’s son who skillfully climbs India’s social ladder to become a chauffer and later a successful businessman. Balram recounts his life story in a letter to visiting Chinese official Premier Wen Jiabao, with the goal of educating the premier about entrepreneurship in India.
Balram writes from his luxurious office in the city of Bangalore, but the story begins in his rural ancestral village of Laxmangahr. Throughout his childhood, Balram’s destitute family lives at the mercy of four cruel, exploitative landlords, referred to as “The Animals”: The Raven, The Stork, The Buffalo, and The Wild Boar. Despite the difficult life he is born into, Balram excels in school. His academic potential and personal integrity distinguish him from his classmates, bringing him to the attention of a visiting school inspector who nicknames him “the White Tiger,” after the most rare and intelligent creature in the jungle.
Balram’s parents recognize his potential and want him to complete his education, but his grandmother Kusum removes him from school early on so that he can work to support the family. Balram is determined to continue his education however he can. When he and his brother Kishan begin working in a teashop in nearby Dhanbad, Balram neglects his duties and spends his days listening to customers’ conversations. He overhears one customer speaking wistfully about the high earnings and easy life that India’s private chauffeurs enjoy, and begs his grandmother to send him to driving school. Kusum agrees, but Balram must promise to send home his wages once he finds a job.
His training complete, Balram knocks on the doors of Dhanbad’s rich families, offering his services. By a stroke of luck, he arrives at the mansion of the Stork (one of Laxmangahr’s animal landlords) one day after the Stork’s son, Mr. Ashok, returns from America with his wife Pinky Madam. The family hires Balram to become Ashok’s driver. In reality, Balram is more of a general servant to the family, while another servant, Ram Persad, has the privilege of driving them.
Balram learns that the Stork’s family fortune comes from illegally selling coal out of government mines. They bribe ministers to turn a blind eye to their fraudulent business and allow the family to avoid paying income tax. Unfortunately, the family recently had a disagreement with the region’s ruling politician, referred to as the Great Socialist. The family dispatches Ashok and Pinky to Delhi, where Ashok will distribute more bribes to make amends. When Balram learns that the couple will need a driver in Delhi, he schemes to have Ram Persad dismissed, and goes in his place.
Once in Delhi, Balram witnesses Pinky and Ashok’s marriage rapidly fall apart. Pinky returns to the US and leaves her husband after she kills a young child in a drunken, hit-and-run accident. In her absence, Ashok goes out to bars and clubs, hiring a prostitute one night, and reconnecting with a former lover on another. Observing his master’s gradual corruption and driving him through Dehli’s seedier districts, Balram becomes disillusioned and resentful. Although Ashok is a relatively kind master, Balram realizes that whatever generosity Ashok has shown him is only a fraction of what he can afford. Ashok has no real interest in helping Balram achieve a better life, or in changing the status quo.
Balram plans to murder Ashok and escape with the bag of the money that he carries around the city to bribe politicians. In addition to the risk of being caught, Balram must contend with the logic of “the Rooster Coop”: the system of oppression in which India’s poor, including Balram himself, are trapped. Balram knows that if he kills Ashok, Ashok’s family will murder all his own relatives in Laxmangahr in retaliation. Balram is also held back by the arrival in Delhi of his young cousin Dharam, who Kusum sends from Dhanbad with the demand that Balram help raise him.
Balram finally resolves to proceed with the murder, using a weapon he has fashioned out of a broken liquor bottle. One day as he drives Ashok to deliver a particularly large bribe, Balram pretends that there is a mechanical problem with the car. He pulls over, convinces Ashok to kneel down and examine the wheel, then brings the broken bottle down on Ashok’s head. After killing his master, he returns to Ashok’s apartment, collects Dharam, and escapes with his young cousin to Bangalore.
Once Balram regains his nerves in Bangalore enough not to fear immediate capture, he begins wandering the city and listening to conversations in cafes –just as he did in the teashop in Dhanbad—to plan his next move. He soon learns that Bangalore’s business world revolves around outsourcing, and that many large technology companies work on a nocturnal schedule. Balram creates a taxi company called White Tiger Drivers to bring call center workers home safely at night, and the venture is an enormous success.
By the time he sits down to tell his story, Balram is a wealthy man who keeps to himself, still fearful that one day his crime will be discovered. However, he concludes his letter to Wen Jiabao claiming that even if he is found out, he will never regret his crime: it was worth committing simply because it enabled him to experience life as a free man rather than as a servant.