The White Tiger

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Social Breakdown, Self-Interest, and Corruption Theme Analysis

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Social Breakdown, Self-Interest, and Corruption Theme Icon

Balram’s rise within Indian Society takes place in the aftermath of India’s liberation from British Rule (which lasted from 1858 to 1947) and the overthrow of India’s traditional caste system. Though the caste system unjustly segregated India’s population and restricted social mobility, locking each member firmly into a single way of life, Balram maintains that its abolition did nothing to improve inequality. Instead, he describes how India went from being an orderly “zoo” where each member of the thousand castes at least had his or her place, to being a jungle where only the law of predator or prey, eat or be eaten, applies. One either fights ruthlessly for self-advancement at the expense of others, or becomes a slave to those more powerful.

This chaotic struggle for power and survival results in two parallel Indias: the Darkness (poor, rural India) and the Light (urban, wealthy, sophisticated India). The extremely wealthy people of Light India oppress the extremely poor people of Dark India to such a degree that those in the Darkness are not even conscious of their own oppression. Over the course of the novel, as Balram becomes increasingly aware of the corrupt forces that maintain this stark inequality, he develops the metaphor of the Rooster Coop: a system in which oppression of the poor is so complete that the oppressed internalize and perpetuate their own subjugation.

In a country where the rules are stacked so overwhelmingly against the poor, Balram comes to believe that to create a better life and “break out of the Rooster Coop,” one must be willing to sacrifice everything, including attachment to traditional ideas of good versus bad and even one’s family. In short, individuals must willfully become radically independent and prioritize wealth and power over morals to escape the oppression of a corrupt society. Balram’s escape from poverty and lack of consequences for his crimes result in a belief that the end justifies the means, and frees him from having to examine himself (or his world) more critically.

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Social Breakdown, Self-Interest, and Corruption ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The White Tiger related to the theme of Social Breakdown, Self-Interest, and Corruption.
Chapter 2: The Second Night Quotes

“Stories of rottenness and corruption are always the best stories, aren’t they?”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram recounts bringing his father to a hospital across the river from Laxmangahr at which there are no doctors. When a patient explains that the lack stems from the hospital’s corruption, Balram observes the way other people nearby are are interested to listen in to this despicable story.

This passage points out here the odd paradox in which negative, rather than positive, stories compel an audience. One might expect that these hospital-goers are looking for compassion or hope but instead they are drawn to a tale of “corruption” that only further explains the reasons for their lack of hope. Balram makes this comment even during the emotionally awful moment of his father’s death, an occasion that presumably should cause him to be upset and to find the story despicable. But instead, with his entrepreneurial observational skills, he zooms out to watch his own and others’ actions. Balram finds an abstract significance in this scene—and he learns that these awful tales are actually more attractive to an audience.

Once more, Balram returns to the importance of aesthetics: Just as he said that his ability to notice the beauty of Black Fort signaled his lack of enslavement, Balram believes that the aesthetic quality of “the best stories” redeems their “rottenness and corruption.” After all, the events being recounted by Balram should, by all accounts, be morally despicable to both protagonist and reader—and yet they are deeply enjoyable to both recount and read. The novel thus theorizes its own process of storytelling, in which the reader’s moral compass is seduced and shifted based on the appeal of Balram's narrative.


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“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.

“We were like two separate cities—inside and outside the dark egg. I knew I was in the right city. But my father, if he were alive, would be sitting on that pavement... So I was in some way out of the car too, even while I was driving it.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Vikram Halwai
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram describes the experiences of driving Ashkok around Delhi and observing those outside of the car. He notes that he has more power than those on the street but also that his actual social position is hardly any better.

To explain how separate his existence is from those on the street, Balram uses the image of two cities. This metaphor implies that there are two overlapping cities in the same physical space—thus pointing to how varied of an experience two populations can have in it. The “dark egg” of the car divides the two, presenting Ashok and Balram’s city as womb-like and protected, while that of the street represents a far harsher reality. This image emphasizes, then, the scale of the social divide in Delhi, in particular as it pertains to who has access to transportation.

At the same time, the comment is deeply personal: Balram notes that his place is not fully in the car and that he metaphorically straddles the two cities. In particular, the reference to his father shows the continued effect that family heritage has on his psyche: Though he has previously renounced his family, Balram evidently believes that their place outside the dark egg causes him to be “in some way out of the car too.” Balram is thus tasked tasked with navigating these two simultaneous cities—a burden that will also serve as an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Chapter 5: The Fifth Night Quotes

“The greatest thing to come out of this country... is the Rooster Coop. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers...They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Rooster Coop
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram explains why he was blamed for his master’s crime by introducing the image of the Rooster Coop. He uses this metaphor repeatedly throughout the novel to describe the way that lower classes are trapped by those in power.

The Rooster Coop, Balram explains, is not just a normal means of social entrapment. It functions not only by containing its prisoners, but also by inspiring a paralyzing fear in them. Transparency allows still-alive roosters to “smell the blood” and “see the organs”; they are presented with stories and images of other roosters being punished. Therefore, the roosters are left feeling deeply scared and unwilling to resist, for they do not want to be similarly punished.

The way that Balram introduces the Rooster Coop is worth examining. That the Rooster Coop is “the greatest thing to come out of this country” presents the image ironically, as a successful cultural product. This sardonic language emphasizes first its potency—it is the “greatest” because it is effective—and second the way Balram sees his country to be deeply disappointing. The Coop, we should note, stands for the opposite of Balram’s entrepreneurial ideals: It discourages risk and maintains the status quo. It is a creation that prevents other creation.

“... 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

“The city knew my secret... Even the road—the smooth, polished road of Delhi that is the finest in all of India—knew my secret.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

Having begun to fantasize about stealing the red bag of money, Balram becomes increasingly paranoid. He thinks that others on the street know of his intentions.

This passage shows how Balram has begun to think of himself in increasingly judgmental terms. He no longer considers himself to be superior to the others in the city and instead fixates on his “secret.” Indeed, he projects this guilty conscience on those around him, imagining that others see him as equally culpable. Anthropomorphizing the road only serves to reiterate the extent of this paranoia—for it assumes that the physical infrastructure of the city itself is tracking Balram’s every move and thought. This passage, then, speaks less to the actual conditions of Delhi and more to the manic psychological state in which Balram has found himself: ambivalent and already guilty about the crime he is about to commit.

“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. 

“There is no end to things in India, Mr. Jiabao, as Mr. Ashok so correctly used to say. You’ll have to keep paying and paying the fuckers. But I complain about the police the way the rich complain; not the way the poor complain.”

Related Characters: Balram Halwai (speaker), Mr. Ashok, Wen Jiabao
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

Balram continues to explore the murky ethics of his new profession. He explains that he remains entrapped in the socially corrupt system despite his success.

Lest the reader believe that Balram’s entrepreneurial exploits have allowed him to fully transcend Indian society, our narrator assures us that corruption still predominates. That “there is no end to things in India” implies that his single success has not led to a full-fledged revolution: He cannot overthrow a complete social system but rather must continue to operate within its confines. “The fuckers” may have changed names for Balram, but the process of “paying and paying” continues. His newfound success does not change that fundamental system but only his relationship to it—complaining as “the rich complain.”

Balram’s point here also helps explain away his continued corrupt actions: the reader might expect a utopian ending in which he acts with perfect morality and without regard for the corrupt Indian government. But Balram instead justifies his behaviors by pointing out that even the white tiger is beholden to his society, and that, given that no one can escape the world, it's better to be a rich person in it than a poor person in it.

“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.