Indian entrepreneur Balram Halwai (alias Ashok Sharma), the novel’s narrator and protagonist, begins composing a letter to Chinese official Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India on diplomacy. Balram expresses his excitement as a local businessman that Jiabao wants to understand the culture of Indian entrepreneurship, and claims that his life story is all Jiabao needs to hear in order to learn “the truth about India.” He warns Jiabao not to believe what politicians tell him, and not to buy the bootlegged American business books that children sell in the street.
Balram’s choice to tell his life story to an important Chinese politician reflects his great social ambition, as well as his admiration for rank and power. It also agrees with his beliefs about education, especially the idea that life experience and immersion in a city or society is more illuminating than traditional learning. This also explains why he holds up his own story as something to be learned from and cautions against trusting business books and reports from politicians.
To set the scene for Jiabao, Balram describes the luxurious Bangalore office from which he writes, and explains that he will stay up all night to tell his story. This is no great hardship considering that all successful entrepreneurs must watch over their businesses night and day. He honors the Indian tradition of praying to the Gods before beginning a story, an act that he irreverently refers to as “Kissing the Gods’ arses,” before starting his narrative.
Balram’s luxurious office embodies urban, sophisticated “Light India.” His decision to begin his narrative with a prayer to the Gods implies that despite his skepticism about religion, its traditions and rituals still have a hold over him: he is “both mocking and believing” at the same time.
Balram refers to himself as a “half-baked Indian” because he was prevented from completing his formal education as a child. However, he claims that this lack of schooling was not necessarily a disadvantage, and that all Indian entrepreneurs are similarly “half-baked.” “Fully formed” Indians, on the other hand, go on to work in companies and have no entrepreneurial spirit.
To describe his physical appearance and basic biographical details, Balram references a police poster that was issued for his arrest three years ago after an event that he describes as “an act of entrepreneurship.” He mocks the hazy, incomplete police report and fills in the missing information as he goes along. He particularly notes his outward transformation from the unfed peasant in the poster to the pudgy businessman he is today. He also mentions that as a child, he was simply called “Munna” or “boy,” until a schoolteacher assigned him the name “Balram”—the name of the god Krishna’s sidekick.
Balram’s reference to his crime as an entrepreneurial act reveals his attitude towards the term: an entrepreneur, to him, is anyone with the courage to break free of poverty and injustice in Indian society, no matter what means they use to do so. The fact that he does not resemble the boy pictured in the poster reflects his ability, as a self-made man, to change his identity completely, and also hints at how wealth transforms his body from thin and malnourished to pudgy and well-fed. Balram has truly crossed from Dark India into the Light, and is now incapable of being caught, as he is too rich and powerful for something like an arrest warrant to touch him.
Balram goes on to describe his native village of Laxmangahr, in the poor, rural “India of Darkness,” in contrast to his current city of Bangalore, which he says is part of the urban, prosperous “India of Light.” Laxmangahr sits on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, where religious Hindus have cremated their dead for centuries and where Balram’s own mother was cremated when he was a young boy. He describes the traumatic experience of her funeral, how he was frightened not so much by the cremation but by the black river mud that sucked his mother’s ashes into its depths. Watching her sink into the earth, Balram faints from an overwhelming sense of oppression and futility. Despite its importance as a sacred site, he never returns.
Though the Ganges is a sacred site and tourist destination, for Balram it represents the ignorance and poverty in which he grew up. The Darkness is a world apart from Light India, which ignores the enormous need of the people in the Darkness while romanticizing India’s holy history. The grand rites at his mother’s funeral only communicate to Balram the misery of her life. The Ganges mud that consumes his mother’s body reminds him of his own hopeless situation and how hard it will be to break free of his lowly station in life.
Throughout his youth Balram is surrounded by poverty, disease, and malnutrition. His destitute family lives at the mercy of four cruel and exploitative landlords referred to collectively as “The Animals,” individually as The Water Buffalo, The Raven, The Stork and the Wild Boar. The Animals “feed” on the town, harassing women and taxing the villagers at every opportunity. ”
The landlords’ animal names reflect Balram’s description of modern India, which is liberated from the old caste system but has turned into a jungle: people either eat or get eaten. Without the roles prescribed by caste, one either rises to extreme wealth and preys on others or sinks into extreme poverty and is preyed upon.
Balram’s father Vikram Halwai scrapes together a living as a rickshaw driver. His one ambition is to see his son complete his education and “live like a man.” Balram’s only understanding of what this might mean is based on his awe for Vijay the Bus Driver, who began as a pig farmer’s son but somehow works his way to a stable job, not to mention a fancy uniform and shiny silver whistle that all the young boys admire. Rumor has it that Vijay got his jobs in exchange for having sex with a politician, but this does not trouble Balram.
Vijay was born at the bottom of the social ladder, but manages to move up in the world. Balram looks up to any Indian capable of escaping inequality and poverty as an entrepreneur, even if escape comes at a moral cost. Balram sees Vijay as someone to emulate.
Balram’s school, though underfunded and run by a corrupt teacher who steals funds because he himself has not been paid for months, is a place where he excels. He recounts a pivotal moment in his life when a visiting school inspector singles him out for his academic promise and integrity. The man calls Balram a “White Tiger,” the rarest and most noble animal in the jungle, and promises him a scholarship. Balram, used to a life of hardship in the Darkness, knows that this promise is too good to come true.
While Balram evolves into a ruthless, cynical, and criminal character, it is important to remember that as a boy he was praised for academic promise and integrity, for being as noble and intelligent as a white tiger. His continued attachment to this sense of himself as a white tiger – as someone uniquely special – reflects the combined impact of his incomplete formal education and his brutal life experience on his identity. It will also justify, at least to himself, all his future actions.
His intuition proves correct. Balram’s grandmother Kusum takes out a loan from the Stork, one of the four village landlords, to pay for a relative’s wedding. The Stork orders that Balram be taken out of school to work alongside the rest of his family and pay back the debt. Balram goes to work with his brother Kishan in the village teashop. Though this is a devastating turn of fate, Balram claims that his entrepreneurial spirit allows him to take matters into his own hands, to turn this bad news into good news.
This episode is an example of what Balram will come to call the Rooster Coop in action, with the poor furthering their own oppression through short-term thinking and familial obligation, while the powerful reap the benefits. Rather than protect Balram’s best interests, Kusum compromises his future. However, Balram also shows his first entrepreneurial tendencies in his resolve to turn drudgery into opportunity.
Balram ends this first installment of his story with a memory of the Black Fort: the only thing of beauty in his impoverished town. The fort is a grand old building on a hill above town, constructed by foreign occupiers years ago, which both fascinated and frightened Balram throughout his youth. He claims that his ability to appreciate its beauty marked him early on as different from his fellow villagers, destined not to remain a slave. When he returns to the village years later with his wealthy master Mr. Ashok and his mistress Pinky Madam, he finally gets the courage to visit the fort alone. He looks out over the village from on high and spits. Eight months later, he reveals, he slits the throat of Mr. Ashok.
Balram believes his interest in the Black Fort to be a sign that he was by nature destined to overcome his deprived background. This belief provides insight into his understanding of himself as a white tiger: someone who is inherently superior, who deserves to be at the top and so is justified in attaining the top by whatever means necessary, and is therefore exempt from certain moral laws. His courage to climb up to the fort with its view over Laxmangahr indicates that he has escaped the psychology and fear that keeps the residents of the Darkness oppressed. He looks out over his boyhood town; he understands the system of oppression, and by spitting he shows both his scorn for this corrupt system and for those who can’t rise above it, and his choice to cut himself free of it. And in his final line he reveals the means by which he rises above, the “entrepreneurial act” that sent him on his way to becoming a successful businessman: murder. He killed to achieve wealth and power. The shock of The White Tiger is that it appears from Balram’s office and tone that the killing gained him exactly what he wanted without any repercussions.