The White Tiger

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Morality and Indian Society Theme Analysis

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Social Breakdown, Self-Interest, and Corruption Theme Icon
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The White Tiger portrays an India that has not only lost its traditional social structure, but also outgrown a conventional moral framework. Balram’s description of the Light India versus the Dark India in the novel, which subverts usual associations of “Light” with virtue, and “Darkness” with immorality, reflects this upset of moral values. Light India is not virtuous at all. Rather, its members do whatever necessary to preserve their own wealth and power, acting morally only when it is convenient for them. They are “Light” primarily in the sense that they can actually see the “light” of wealth and luxury, much as a plant might grow tall enough to see the light of day and further its own growth. Meanwhile, Rooster Coop logic prevails over Dark India: men dutifully behave according to familial and religious values, but they do so because they are terrified into submission, not out of genuine desire to lead a good life. In both cases, people sacrifice morality as they fight for survival within India’s cutthroat social landscape.

Traditional Indian values founded on deep religious faith and the teachings of venerated national heroes like Gandhi are similarly comprised. Throughout the book, Balram goes through the motions of religious faith and prayer largely to impress his master with his devotion. Yet he argues that he is both “sly and sincere, believing and mocking” at the same time: that this fickle embrace of faith is typical of Indian culture. Indians have a deep yearning for their past, when their country strived so heroically to define the terms of morality for itself, and yet this attachment does not necessarily inspire them to uphold those time-honored values.

In the midst of India’s moral upset, Balram develops his own personal moral framework founded on his sense of himself as a “white tiger”: a rare creature with superior intelligence who lives in the jungle but is exempt from its rules. His embrace of this notion that he is special and therefor deserves to exist outside legal and moral codes allows him to justify murdering his master Ashok, knowingly and callously exposing his own family to likely fatal vengeance, so that he can begin his first business—White Tiger Drivers—with Ashok’s money. Balram jokes, “The devil was once God’s sidekick until he went freelance.” He believes that the struggle to escape social and economic subjugation in Indian society, to go “freelance” and achieve control over one’s future, trumps traditional notions of good vs. evil, God vs. the devil, rendering actions the reader might consider immoral understandable, and yet also depicting the society that could make such actions understandable as brutally lost and corrupt.

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Morality and Indian Society ThemeTracker

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

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

“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.


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“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

“See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo... the day the British left—the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

When Balram petitions a driving instructor for lessons, his request is received with skepticism due to his low social caste. This event moves him to describe the shifting social structures in India before and after the British empire.

Once more, Balram uses an extended animal metaphor in order to explain the way that people interact. In this analogy, the older India was a “zoo” because it was rigorously structured by the caste system: Each person (i.e. animal) was allotted a certain position based on his birth—and had little to no hope of ever changing that position. Yet after the British departed, Balram contends, the zoo transformed into a jungle. That is to say, extreme mobility was suddenly possible (as was the "animals" eating each other). In this way, the transformation to jungle law allows a white tiger like Balram to, regardless of caste position, rise to success.

Yet while this passage might present the shift from zoo to jungle as largely positive, Balram’s precise position on the matter remains unclear. “Jungle law” undergirds his ability to be an entrepreneur, but it is also deeply violent, as evidenced by his description of “attacked and ripped each other apart.” Similarly, the quick reference to India’s “days of greatness” implies that the country was more successful when it was more like a zoo—stricter and more beholden to caste. Balram thus holds an ambivalent perspective on the changing nature of Indian society—seeing both desirable mobility and undesirable unrest in the changes.

“To sum up—in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat—or get eaten up.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram continues to describe the changing caste system before and after British rule. He specifies that it has become far simpler: split into a binary division between the ambitious and unambitious instead of a multi-faceted caste system.

This passage partially obscures Balram’s precise perspective on the changing nature of Indian society until you think through it more carefully. Though the variegated nature of the “old days” might seem desirable due to the way it encompassed a range of lives and destinies, this old system would also have locked each person into the destiny in which they were born. Balram might describe the “two castes” of contemporary India with a certain bluntness, but the reader must remember that it is this exact reduction that will allow him to succeed in his endeavors. By reducing the system to just those with “Big Bellies” and “Small Bellies,” Balram makes ambition and wealth the only socially-meaningful factors. As a result, all animals can enter into the metaphorical jungle battle and can potentially rise to the top of society. Indeed, destiny is no longer a pre-assigned specified life but rather dependent on one’s individual ability to “eat—or get eaten up.” Simplicity, in this case, actually affords Balram greater entrepreneurial capacity, for he is bounded just by this one rule.

Chapter 4: The Fourth Night Quotes

“We’re driving past Ghandi, after just having given a bribe to a minister. It’s a fucking joke, isn’t it.”

Related Characters: Mr. Ashok (speaker), Pinky Madam
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Ashok makes this comment after a day of being chauffeured by Balram around Delhi. He is horrified of the irony of passing a famous Ghandi statue after a day spent buying off officials.

This line speaks to the deeply paradoxical nature of Delhi society: Though on the outside it may be covered in monuments that affirm moral integrity, on the inside it is a morass of political corruption. Thus what Gandhi, who is considered the father of the Indian state, stands for is not only being ignored, but also actively betrayed under the nose of his very statue. Ashok’s frustration is motivated in part by a historical critique—on the inability of India to follow Ghandi’s moral principles—and in part by disgust at the mere thought of what his family has done.

Yet if Ashok’s comment casts him as deeply corrupt, the very fact that he speaks this line reveals a more ethical disposition. Certainly, many characters engage in similar behaviors, but few like Ashok hold themselves accountable for these behaviors—or even see them to be negative. But by noting the symbolic mismatch of the Ghandi statue and the day’s acts, Ashkok reveals a capacity to notice these behaviors—and to find them lacking. Thus he, like Balram, is both a witness and agent of corruption: partially redeemed for their observational powers but also condemned for perpetuating the broken system.

Ashok's moral concerns also mark him in two other ways: first, they make him a more sympathetic character, so Balram's eventual murder of him is thus harder to justify. Second, though, in the context of the "jungle" of Indian portrayed in the novel, they mark him as weak, as someone who might be murder-able.

Chapter 5: The Fifth Night Quotes

“... But where my genuine concern for him ended and where my self-interest began, I could not tell: no servant can ever tell what the motives of his heart are... We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Mr. Ashok
Related Symbols: The Rooster Coop
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

While caring for Ashok in the wake of Pinky Madam’s departure, Balram finds himself growing fond of his master. But he also questions his own motives for such feelings, noting that the social structure prevents him from correctly ascertaining his feelings.

Balram shows himself, here, to be deeply skeptical of his own emotional responses. He rejects the idea of his “genuine concern,” observing that it may just be “self-interest”: It would behoove him to feel compassionate toward Ashok and to treat him with more care, because Ashok might in turn reward or protect him. This is a textbook examples of the Rooster Coop because instead of rebelling, Balram has actually found himself caring about the very man who helps keep him encaged. Thus Balram indicates that Indian society both subdues revolutionary impulses and forms odd emotional connections between servants and masters.

Although this comment pertains to a specific relationship and specific culture, it also makes a poignant statement on the broader functioning of human emotions. Each society, after all, has some form of a Rooster Coop: a social system that divides people into different strata and creates an incentive system for members of certain strata to behave in specified ways toward others. Balram’s claim that “we are made mysteries to ourselves” in such a setup indicates that human identity itself is shaped and occluded by any such hierarchy—for the individual’s emotions cannot be separated from the desires dictated by the Coop.

“The Rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs. Yes, that’s the sad truth, Mr. Premier. The coop is guarded from the inside.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Wen Jiabao, Vitiligo-Lips
Related Symbols: The Rooster Coop
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Kusum Granny sends Balram a letter encouraging him to marry. While he is tempted, Balram eventually decides this choice will entrap him: He sees his family as a set of obstacles that are part of the Rooster Coop.

This passage adds an additional facet to the entrapping-mechanism of the Coop: the way roosters in the Coop prevent others from escaping. Previously Balram has described the way other servants from Ashok’s family have sought to halt his goals. Here it is not only unknown servants but also family members that play this role—for Balram repeatedly finds himself torn between pursuing his entrepreneurial exploits and following the wishes of Kusum Granny. Balram thus justifies his rejection of his family and of any affiliation with other servants based on the idea that they will keep him within the Coop.

Though this dynamic might imply that the roosters fight each other in order to escape the cage, Balram’s language explicitly resists that interpretation. His use of the passive voice in the phrases “Rooster Coop was doing”and “is guarded” indicates that these actions are not actively chosen by the roosters but rather stem from the entrapping social system. Indeed, the servants are not battling for a select few spots as “innovators, experiments, or entrepreneurs” but simply preventing anyone from gaining that power. They thus function as a self-encasing guard cohort that has adopted the logic of the cage owners.

Chapter 6: The Sixth Morning Quotes

“The rest of today’s narrative will deal mainly with the sorrowful tale of how I was corrupted from a sweet, innocent village fool into a citified fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness, All these changes happened in me because they happened first in Mr. Ashok.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Mr. Ashok
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Chapter 6, Balram prepares the reader for the direction of the story to come. He explains that he followed and mimicked Ashok’s newly perverted behaviors.

This passage marks a decisive shift in the tone and trajectory of Balram’s story. Whereas he has previously considered the tale to mark his self-improvement from ignorance to knowledge, Balram here inverts its direction: from laudable innocence to “wickedness.” For the first time, the reader has a sense that Balram looks retrospectively at his life with a sense of guilt, instead of simply believing that his choices were uniformly positive.

Despite this note of self-criticism, however, Balram continues to offload the full extent of his moral responsibility. When he says, “All these changes happened in me because they happened first in Mr. Ashok,” Balram presents his behaviors to be the result of mimicking his master, just as he hadpreviously in the novel. Thus, he is not in fact taking a new stance on the world, but rather applying the same entrepreneurial techniques to an undesirable subject.

Furthermore, the way that he describes his transformation from “village fool” to “citified fellow” portrays the change in him not as dependent on his own character but rather on the environment in which he finds himself. So even as Balram seems to take moral responsibility, he also continues to offload that culpability onto external factors.

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.

“Let animals live like animals; let humans live like humans. That’s my whole philosophy in a sentence.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:

While at the zoo, Balram returns to contemplate his metaphorical connection between humans and animals. Here he revises his earlier beliefs and pronounces his essential worldview.

Whereas before Balram would constantly equate humans and animals, here he sharply differentiates between the two. Animals that are in the zoo thus should be treated with certain restrictions, whereas humans should be entirely free. Balram implies that each species has a natural way of living that should be manifested correctly; and when social forces prevent that from happening, then something is at odds with his philosophy. Though this seems to be a fairly self-evident proposition, it bears recalling just how prevalent animal and cage imagery has been in the text. This sentence is therefore far more than a simple comment that humans should be treated well. It is also a rejection of the very symbolism Balram has spent the novel up to this point developing: his new philosophy implies that what he was doing before was incorrect—for it implicitly linked humans to animals in an ultimately demeaning and restrictive way. Of course, this new philosophy also gives Balram license to be free in the sense of doing whatever he wants without restriction, including murdering Ashok to take the bribe money for himself.

“We went from bank to bank, and the weight of the red bag grew. I felt its pressure increase on my lower back—as if I were taking Mr. Ashok and his bag not in a car, but the way my father would take a customer and his bag—in a rickshaw.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Mr. Ashok, Vikram Halwai
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Ashok prepares for an enormous bribe, so Balram must shuttle him over Delhi withdrawing money.

This passage is a characteristic example of how Balram’s imaginative thinking takes a metaphorical idea and renders it literal. Of course, the physical weight of the bag is not actually sufficient to weigh him down, but Balram feels that it is symbolically doing so. That he feels a “pressure increase” speaks to a double moral burden: one Balram feels for supporting Ashok in the first place and one for the murder he is planning to imminently commit.

And, intriguingly, this burden causes Balram to think back on his father’s parallel experience as a rickshaw driver. The memory links Balram to his familial past, as it is true that just as his father once drove people around, he is doing the same thing now. This is a reminder that he is still just as caught in the Rooster Coop as his father ever was, that he is still just as trapped in that inferior social position, and it therefore serves as a final spur to make him determined to commit the murder that will allow him to escape the Rooster Coop.

Chapter 8: The Seventh Night Quotes

The city has its share of thugs and politicians. It’s just that here, if a man wants to be good, he can be good. In Laxmangarh, he doesn’t even have this choice. This is the difference between this India and that India; the choice.”

Related Characters: Muslim Bookseller (speaker), Balram Halwai
Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis:

After one of his drivers kills a young boy, Balram visits the family to offer his condolences and financial compensation. He extrapolates this moment to offer a broader comment on different sub-societies in India.

The difference between Laxmangarh and Bangalore, for Balram, is that the first forestalls individual agency and social mobility. As such, one “doesn’t even have this choice” to act morally or not. This distinction speaks both to Balram’s entrepreneurial success as well as to the shifting social conditions in Indian society—which are slowly loosening the strictness of the Rooster Coop that previously dominated “that India.” A man “can be good” in Bangalore precisely because so many restrictions have been eased, because he has the freedom to also choose not to be good. (Remeber that earlier in the novel Balram compared himself to the devil who rebelled against God, who, Balram might say, chose free will rather than enforced goodness.)

This passage also helps to clarify the reason that Balram sees himself to be a relatively ethical person. Although the average reader might consider his actions to be no less corrupt than those of the previous animal overlords, Balram contends that there is a clear shift. That shift does not stem so much from the way he does business—he continues to bribe officials and avoid guilt—but from the awareness he holds of the flawed nature of his actions. 

“Yet...even if they throw me in jail...Ill say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hours, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant. I think I am ready to have children, Mr. Premier.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Wen Jiabao
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to a close, Balram considers the fact that he may be caught for his murder. He continues to defend his choice, observing that even if he were punished, his moment of freedom would alone justify the punishment.

That living freely “just for a minute” would make worthwhile being thrown in jail speaks to the high value that Balram attributes to his freedom. Intriguingly, the value he attributes to freedom derives less from the experience of being free and rather from the knowledge that he is free: the mere awareness of what it feels like “not to be a servant.” Balram thus raises his individual liberty above all other values and experiences, defining it to be his singular and central goal in life.

The reference to having children is far less straightforward. Recall that Balram was previously attracted to marriage and to family life but believed that it would distract him from his goals. Similarly, we have seen that the family is a critical component of the Rooster Coop, which obstructs social mobility. Thus Balram’s feeling that he is “ready” for children might indicate that his success has sufficiently guarded him from those threats: He can have children because he has already emancipated himself (and his future children) from familial entrapment. At the same time, that Balram would see himself as ready for children only after achieving business success founded on murder and theft serves once more as a condemnation of the Indian society in which he lives, that much make such a sentiment logical.