The White Tiger

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Themes and Colors
The Self-Made Man Theme Icon
Social Breakdown, Self-Interest, and Corruption Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Morality and Indian Society Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The White Tiger, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Education Theme Icon

The White Tiger is a story about how education, formal and otherwise, shapes individuals. Balram first receives his nickname –The White Tiger—in a classroom setting. Though over the course of the novel he attempts to embody his name by cultivating a ruthless, cunning streak and competing in Indian society, he originally earned the description for academic promise and integrity.

After being pulled out of school at an early age, Balram is left with only bits and pieces of a formal education. This leads him to refer to himself as a “half-baked” or “half-cooked” Indian. He sees his “half-cooked” education not as a weakness, but rather as one of the preconditions for an entrepreneurial spirit. He believes that having to take responsibility for one’s own education requires and builds an inventive, resourceful mind, and responds to the abrupt end of his schooling by learning what he can on the job. He claims he is not an original thinker, but rather an original listener, and pieces together an understanding of India by eavesdropping at work, transforming dead-end, menial jobs into learning opportunities.

As an adult, Balram respects traditional learning to a degree. He enjoys the proximity and physical presence of books, but also sneers at the musty, “foul taste” they leave in his mouth. Balram claims to learn more from “the road and the pavement”—from studying the constant changes of Indian society to cultivate the flexibility and adaptability he believes a self-made man should possess. In general, Balram emphasizes the importance of being attuned to one’s surroundings. As a child, he alone out of all the villagers becomes fascinated with the Black Fort: a beautiful old building in his town constructed by a foreign power years ago. He claims that the other villagers “remain slaves because they can’t see what is beautiful in this world,” and that by contrast, his innate ability to find interest and beauty in his environment marked him early on as deserving of a better life.

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Education ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Education appears in each chapter of The White Tiger. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Education Quotes in The White Tiger

Below you will find the important quotes in The White Tiger related to the theme of Education.
Chapter 1: The First Night Quotes

“The story of my upbringing is the story of how a half-baked fellow is produced. But pay attention, Mr. Premier! Fully formed fellows, after twelve years of school and three years of university, wear nice suits, join companies, and take orders from other men for he rest of their lives. Entrepreneurs are made from half-baked clay.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

As Balram begins to recount his personal narrative, he notes that he did not receive a formal education. He defends this experience by pointing out that it actually served him advantageously.

This passage marks the first point during which Balram seeks to recast his undesirable social position as instead a superior one. The term “half-baked” will reappear throughout the novel: Here it first might seem to be a negative descriptor, for it refers to someone who is only partially educated and thus not fully formed. Balram, however, asks the reader to ignore those preconceptions with the exhortation to Mr. Premier to “pay attention”: to read more closely the specific narrative instead of approaching it with assumptions about what makes someone successful.

The unexpected advantages of a “half-baked fellow” stem, for Balram, from adaptability and lack of conformity. He sees those who are "fully formed" as being monotonous and incapable of critical thought, because they have been conditioned from their schooling to “take orders” and thus to exist within the hierarchy. Balram’s rhetorical move is to equate “half-baked” with “entrepreneur,” thus taking qualities that most would consider to be a fault and cast them as the very qualities that have allowed him to succeed. The novel becomes, then, not only the story of Balram's life but also an attempt to redeem a class and type of person.


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“You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation?”
“The white tiger.”
“That’s what you are, in this jungle.”

Related Characters: The Inspector (speaker), Balram Halwai
Related Symbols: The White Tiger
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

While describing his flawed education, Balram recounts a pivotal moment in which he is promised a scholarship. His teacher called him a "white tiger," an image that he will adopt throughout the novel.

The white tiger stands, here, for both Balram’s faculties and his moral integrity. Between the descriptors of “intelligent” and “vivacious”—which speak only to talent—the teacher uses the most pivotal one: “honest.” Myriad references are made to the unscrupulous natures of other characters throughout the novel—the “thugs and idiots”—and thus Balram’s character is particularly unique because he maintains a moral compass. Indeed, the teacher argues that this is such a unique behavior that it “comes along only once in a generation.” This singularly ethical nature in Balram gives him grounds to receive the scholarship from the teacher and seems to set him apart from society.

Although this memory might seem very promising for Balram, the text’s use of animal imagery foreshadows how the protagonist will continue to be entrapped by social forces. The teacher may affirm that Balram is a white tiger, but he qualifies it with the phrase “in this jungle,” drawing attention to the wild and brutal environment in which Balram finds himself. Indeed, the promise of a scholarship will end unfulfilled due to the cruelty of the "animal" crime lords (The Stork, etc) who control his town. Thus even as the white tiger image marks Balram for his singularity of purpose and integrity, it also confirms that he must navigate and fight his way through a cruel, antagonistic environment in order to succeed.

“They remain slaves because they can’t see what is beautiful in this world.”

Related Symbols: The Black Fort
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

While describing the Black Fort, Balram observes that he has a unique capacity to see what is beautiful in the world. He believes that this quality sets him apart from others.

This passage shows that Balram’s model of the world divides people into two types: Certain people are “slaves” and trapped in their narrow position, while others are emancipated entrepreneurs like Balram. We might expect these differences to be based on social or economic status, but Balram sees them to be a matter of mental emancipation: more specifically, he believes it is the ability to “see what is beautiful” that allows him to think critically and creatively. Though the outcomes of this type of thinking are not yet evident, Balram will come to use this concept – aestheticism, or the ability to see beauty – as a way to categorize and make sense of his other experiences and talents. To see the Black Fort as beautiful signifies, then, not just the ability to regard something as aesthetic from a distance—but to more broadly find significance in the world. It is this earnest belief in the meaning of the world that will motivate Balram to pursue his goals.

Chapter 2: The Second Night Quotes

“Many of my best ideas are, in fact, borrowed from my ex-employer or his brother or someone else whom I was driving about. (I confess, Mr. Premier: I am not an original thinker—but I am an original listener.)

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Mr. Ashok
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

After describing his murder of Ashok at the end of the previous chapter, Balram begins this chapter by stating that he still feels a sense of fondness to his ex-employer. He also explains that many of his entrepreneurial conceits came from Ashok and that this borrowing technique is characteristic of what has allowed him to succeed.

This passage upends the preconception that entrepreneurial success is the result of entirely innovative ideas that are conceived of by a single creator. Instead of seeing the entrepreneur as a solitary genius, Balram believes that real talent lies in listening. Indeed, that one can be “an original listener” implies that listening is not a universal and passive process but rather something that can be done more or less attentively—and in a variety of different ways. The very definition of originality is thus reimagined here, with Balram seeing entrepreneurial brilliance to be a matter of recombining and manifesting the ideas of others.

The ethics of Balram’s behaviors here become increasingly murky. Having already admitted to murder, he now divulges that he has often stolen the intellectual property of others—even of the man that he has killed. Yet Balram does not find this behavior problematic, instead seeing in it further proof of his entrepreneurial brilliance and originality. Thus this passage shows that his moral compass is based on achieving success – financial might, worldly power – rather than personal respect or fairness: For Balram the ability to correctly execute an idea is itself moral. A white tiger, after all, doesn't question itself for killing itself prey.

“That’s the one good thing I’ll say for myself. I’ve always been a big believer in education—especially my own.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram begins working for a teashop in Dhanbad and recalls his earlier work at a similar locale in Laxmanghar. He would rarely pay attention to his tasks but rather focus on listening to the conversations—a process he believes aided him with his education.

This passage clarifies the type of education that Balram finds important for an entrepreneur. Instead of succeeding in a formal schooling environment, he assimilates a broad swath of information from various customers at the tea shop. As a result, following instructions in his workplace is deemed unnecessary just as with any type of formal education. Once more, Balram here bucks socially-accepted notions of success in order to defend his unconventional behavior.

That Balram sees his belief in education as “the one good thing I’ll say for myself” indicates that he thinks of himself as a morally culpable person, as someone who has made unscrupulous decisions and therefore one for whom not much could be said. That he is a “believer in education” seems to mark him as more ethical, as this is a laudable perspective to hold; yet when he qualifies this point with “especially my own,” Balram reaffirms his more selfish nature. His interest is ultimately not in the abstract principle of education but rather in how education serves as a means to achieve his own ends.

“I absorbed everything—that’s the amazing thing about entrepreneurs. We are like sponges—we absorb and grow.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Now a driver for the Stork’s family, Balram often finds himself in situations in which he can eavesdrop on political discussions. For instance while massaging the Stork, Balram observes that he can assimilate information and expand his entrepreneurial talents.

This passage reiterates the importance of listening to Balram’s model of the entrepreneur. His education here, as in the tea shop, is not a matter of acquiring formal knowledge but rather of engaging with the content available to him at all times. Seeing the entrepreneurs as a class of “sponges” reiterates that they need not be brilliant innovators or actively ferocious, but rather cautious and patient—taking advantage of all the nutrients surrounding them. That this will cause Balram to “grow” implies that it is part of his transformation from a small-bellied into a large-bellied man, for he expands by assimilating the ideas of those who have already succeeded.

Balram also uses this image to cast moments that would otherwise seem negative or subservient as instead quite positive. Though giving a foot massage would normally be a demeaning act, this activity is presented by Balram as quite desirable for him—because, by patiently performing this labor he is able to learn much more and better himself in ways than he otherwise could. Thus not only does the entrepreneurial mindset allow Balram to gain knowledge; it also lets him define his life in more favorable terms, to see present indignity as part of the hard work that will pay off in the end.

Chapter 7: The Sixth Night Quotes

“You were looking for the key for years/ But the door was always open!”

Related Characters: Muslim Bookseller (speaker), Balram Halwai
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram wanders through Delhi with the bribe money from Ashok. While doing so, he hears these lines from a poem spoken by a Muslim bookseller.

These unexpected phrases help provide Balram with the confidence he requires in order to commit the pivotal crime of the novel. He interprets them to mean that the “door” to personal and social improvement need not be opened with a mystical key—which would stand for a singular entrepreneurial idea—but simply requires him to have the courage to access the already-available options. The striking pertinence of this comment to Balram’s current situation presents the events-to-come as fated. But we could also interpret the connection as further evidence of his paranoid mindset: one that links even anecdotal and unrelated comments to his own life.

The line of poetry also offers a very different model of Indian society than that put forward previously by Balram. Whereas earlier descriptions of the Coop have repeatedly stressed the restrictive nature of Indian society, this passage does just the opposite: it implies that there are in fact no restrictions and that anyone is free to move between doors with complete ease. Once more, Balram presents his success as less the result of a genius idea and more from his ability to observe and act on social patterns.

Chapter 8: The Seventh Night Quotes

“Now, despite my amazing success story, I don’t want to lose contact with the place where I got my real education in life. The road and the pavement.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

After murdering Ashok and absconding with the bribe money, Balram moves to Bangalore and uses the money to become a successful business entrepreneur. But he reminds the reader that he stays connected to average people and patterns in the city.

This passage preempts a judgement that many readers would make of Balram’s character: that once he has succeeded in his endeavors, he would abandon the lower social caste of his past and assimilate fully into the lives of the large-bellied men. Instead, Balram explains, he continues to adhere to the unconventional “real education” that allowed him to succeed in the first place: the “original listening” to the ideas of others on the street. Indeed, it was both the metaphorical and literal pavement that gave Balram the idea for his business, ultimately affirming the success of his technique. If earlier Balram sought to turn the drawback of being “half-baked” into a desirable quality, here he reconfirms those benefits—by expressing a continued adherence even once he has succeeded.

At the same time, Balram's concern that the reader might judge him for whether or not he would abandon the streets, when he has just described how he achieved business success through murder and theft, seems more than a little misplaced! Through the dissonance of what Balram thinks would concern us as readers and what more likely does offers, Adiga, the novelist, space to critique the Indian society that has produced Balram. As portrayed by Adiga, it is a place so focused on success and its achievement that little things like murder don't even really fit into Balram's moral calculus. Balram remains irrepressible and attractive as a character to the end of the novel. But the India that created Balram is, at the same time, witheringly critiqued by the novel. 

“People in this country are still waiting for the war of their freedom to come from somewhere else...That will never happen. Every man must make his own Benaras. The book of your revolution sits in the pit of your belly, young Indian. Crap it out, and read.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram’s final statements return to a broad condemnation of Indian society. He challenges others to be less passive and to recognize that they are capable of revolutionary activity if they simply take an active stand.

This passage references and rejects a common Marxist rhetoric of revolution. In particular, Balram calls on common people to rise up against their oppressors instead of passively accepting their lot in life. His issue with “people in this country” is that they believe someone else will induce a massive society shift when in fact such a change will only ever arise from individual action. Consider, after all, the derision Balram directed toward the Great Socialist’s party, which offers a false form of that exact revolution.

Balram also here references actual spiritual and political movements, but only to undermine them and to argue that such institutions will fail to bring about real change. “Benares” is another name for Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India and the site of many pilgrimages. A single “book of your revolution” recalls a text like the Communist Manifest from Marx. But Balram believes that the redemption one seeks in Varanasi is created internally and that a revolution’s manifest “sits in the pit of your belly”: it is a result of individual ambition—even avarice—and it is deeply personal. Thus Balram closes the novel by extrapolating his own anecdotal story to offer a model of how others in Indian society could succeed: Not by following a singular or ideological model but by crafting (crapping) their own individual revolutions.