The White Tiger Summary

Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

The White Tiger Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

Critically lauded but controversial, The White Tiger examines the dark underbelly of contemporary Indian society, its caste system, and its place in the globalized world through the tale of an entrepreneur escaping rural poverty. The novel is stylistically unusual in that the entire narrative takes the form of a letter written by the central character, Balram, to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, who is due to visit India to discuss business and entrepreneurship. Through this letter, Balram describes his own life story and how he rose from a poor child in a rural village to the prosperous figure he is now, presenting himself as an example of successful entrepreneurship

Balram’s early life is largely a tale of poverty and oppression. He grows up as a member of a large family from the low-status Halwai caste in the small village Laxmangarh in the state of Rajasthan in India. His mother dies when he is still very young, and he is largely raised by his domineering grandmother, Kusum, with his father working hard to make ends meet with his rickshaw business. Four powerful landlords, known simply as the Buffalo, the Raven, the Stork, and the Wild Boar, dominate Laxmangarh and its poor inhabitants, and Balram is seemingly destined for a life of servitude and poverty. At school, Balram is considered an intelligent and gifted child, so much so that an inspector once called him a “white tiger,” meaning he is rare and exceptional. Despite this, however, his education is interrupted when his family force him to work with his brother in a teashop in Dhanbad so he can help pay for his cousin’s dowry. In many ways his education continuations here, albeit in a markedly different fashion: by listening in to customers’ conversations, Balram learns about the government and economy of India and the often-corrupt way this world operates.

Inspired in part by realizing that he is a good listener, Balram decides to become a chauffeur and soon gets a job driving for the Stork’s sons, a position that brings him the relative luxuries of a room to live in and smart uniform to wear. Embracing his upward mobility, Balram soon drifts further and further from his old life and stops sending money home to his family. One day, when he drives the Stork’s son Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, back to Laxmangarh, he argues with his grandmother when she pressures him to marry and finally turns his back on his family altogether. Intending to keep climbing the social ladder, Balram accompanies Ashok and Pinky Madam, and the Stork’s other son, the Mongoose, when they move to New Delhi, ensuring that he is the driver chosen for the task by telling them that the other driver is secretly Muslim. One night in Delhi, Pinky Madam, who had been drinking heavily, decides to drive the car and accidently hits and kills a child. The Mongoose pressures Balram to say that he was driving the car and to go to jail in Pinky Madam’s place. However, the Stork comes to New Delhi and informs them that he has used their police connections to have the case dropped.

When Pinky Madam ends her marriage to Ashok and leaves the country, Ashok begins drinking heavily and going out to clubs, often relying on Balram to look after him. Despite this, he continues to be heavily involved in corruption, frequently collecting money in a distinctive red bag and using huge amounts of it as bribes for government officials. Eventually, Balram concludes that he will have to murder Ashok if he is ever to escape what he calls the “Rooster Coop” of poverty and servitude. He knows that doing so will almost certainly mean that Ashok’s family will murder Balram’s family in revenge, but he decides to go ahead with the plan anyway, stabbing Ashok in the neck with a broken whiskey bottle and stealing the red bag and its contents. The bag contains 700,000 rupees, which Balram takes to the city of Bangalore and uses to bribe the local police to help him set up a taxi business. He names the company White Tiger Technology Drivers. Through bribery and corruption, his business grows and Balram becomes an increasingly powerful and influential figure. As proof of this, he explains how, when one of his drivers hit and killed a child, he was able to simply pay off the family and use his connections to make the case disappear, just like the Stork had done after Pinky Madam’s accident. As Balram finishes his letter to Jiabao, he justifies the murder of Ashok and of his own family as being necessary steps in his struggle for freedom and presents the whole grim tale as a positive story of entrepreneurial success.

The White Tiger has been both celebrated and criticized for its damning view of Indian society. Throughout the novel, Balram refers to there being two Indias, “the light” and “the darkness.” In the light, successful figures such as entrepreneurs, business people, and politicians live in luxury in the top tiers of society while people of lower castes are stuck down in the darkness, living in poverty, and working tirelessly for the benefit of others. It is repeatedly demonstrated that corruption, abuse, and oppression are employed by those in power to keep others permanently in the darkness. Through the character of Balram, Adiga also shows how this dynamic—along with globalization’s spreading of Western ideas of personal freedom as all important—can have a corrupting influence on individuals. As Balram, buoyed on the perception of himself as the rare and special “white tiger,” strives to escape poverty and servitude, he develops a ruthless outlook in which the murder of Ashok and the retaliatory killing of his own family are acceptable as long as they result in his “freedom.” These insights, along with the inventive structuring, strong writing, and darkly comic tone, have won the novel many accolades including the 2008 Man Booker Prize.