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
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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.
The Self-Made Man Theme Icon

The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai’s life as a self-declared “self-made entrepreneur”: a rickshaw driver’s son who 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 Jiabao, with the goal of educating the premier about entrepreneurship in India. Though Jiabao is primarily interested in learning about entrepreneurship within the context of business and finance, Balram’s broad understanding of entrepreneurial activity –and also the scope of his story— complicates this traditional sense of the term. He believes that any Indian who acts to take charge of his own social and economic destiny qualifies as a true entrepreneur.

According to Balram, one primary characteristic of the self-made Indian man is his ability to repeatedly transform himself—to not only change his profession, uniform and outward presentation, but also his very identity. Balram believes that a fluid approach to identity is essential for successful entrepreneurship. He adopts a new name each time he moves up within India’s social hierarchy—Munna, Balram, Ashok, The White Tiger—and describes with admiration his childhood hero Vijay, a pig farmer’s son turned wealthy politician, for his versatile sense of self.

Balram claims that self-made entrepreneurs are not only adaptable with respect to identity, but also subject to a more fluid legal and moral code. Throughout the novel he argues that entrepreneurs in India can only become successful by breaking the law, and that this fact justifies their criminal activity. As a servant who murders his master and rises in society without suffering any consequences, Balram embodies this principle. At the same time, his triumphant retelling of his crimes and minimal expression of remorse paints a bleak portrait of Indian society. It is a world in which rising to the top involves cultivating indifference to human suffering, particularly the suffering of one’s inferiors. Balram’s own experience of cruelty at the hands of his more powerful masters seems not to contribute to his sense of compassion, but rather to his desire to become a master himself.

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The Self-Made Man ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The White Tiger related to the theme of The Self-Made Man.
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.

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.

“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 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. 

“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.

“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.