The entire novel is narrated through letters by Balram Halwai to the Premier of China, who will soon be visiting India.
Balram is an Indian man from an impoverished background, born in the village of Laxmangarh. Early on, he describes his basic story: he transcended his humble beginnings to become a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore, largely through the murder Mr. Ashok, who had been his employer. Balram also makes clear that because of the murder, it is likely that his own family has been massacred in retribution.
In Laxmangarh, Balram was raised in a large, poor family from the Halwai caste, a caste that indicates sweet-makers. The village is dominated and oppressed by the “Four Animals,” four landlords known as the Wild Boar, the Stork, the Buffalo, and the Raven. Balram's father is a struggling rickshaw driver, and his mother died when he is young. The alpha figure of his family was his pushy grandmother, Kusum.
Balram was initially referred to simply as “Munna,” meaning “boy," since his family had not bothered to name him. He did not have another name until his schoolteacher dubbed him Balram. The boy proved himself intelligent and talented, and was praised one day as a rare “White Tiger” by a visiting school inspector. Unfortunately, Balram was removed from school after only a few years, to work in a tea shop with his brother, Kishan. There, he furthered his education by eavesdropping on the conversations of shop customers.
Balram feels that there are two Indias: the impoverished “Darkness” of the rural inner continent, and the “Light” of urban coastal India. A mechanism that he dubs the “Rooster Coop” traps the Indian underclass in a perpetual state of servitude. It involves both deliberate methods used by the upper class and a mentality enforced by the underclass on itself.
Balram’s father died from tuberculosis in a decrepit village hospital, where no doctors were present due to abundant corruption within all the government institutions in the Darkness. After the father’s death, Kishan got married and moved with Balram to the city of Dhanbad to work. There, Balram decided to become a chauffeur, and raised money to take driving lessons from a taxi driver.
Once trained, Balram was hired by the Stork - whom he crossed path with coincidentally - as a chauffeur for his sons, Mushek Sir (known as the Mongoose) and Mr. Ashok. Officially, Balram was the “second driver,” driving the Maruti Suzuki, while another servant, Ram Persad, drove the more desirable Honda City.
As a driver in the Stork’s household, Balram lived a stable and satisfactory life. He wore a uniform and slept in a covered room which he shared with Ram Persad. When Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, decided to visit Laxmangarh one day, Balram drove them there, and thus had a chance to visit his family. They were proud of his accomplishments, but Kusum pressured him to get married, which angered him since that would cede what he saw as his upward mobility. He stormed out of the house and climbed to the Black Fort above the village, spitting from there down upon the view of Laxmangarh far below.
Balram describes at length the corrupt nature of politics in the Darkness. A politician known as the Great Socialist controls the Darkness through election fraud. The Stork’s family, involved in shady business dealings in the coal industry, must regularly bribe the Great Socialist to ensure their success.
As part of these political maneuverings, Ashok and Pinky Madam made plans to go to Delhi for three months. When Balram learned that only one driver would be brought with them, he spied on Ram Persad to discover that the man was secretly a Muslim who had lied about his identity to gain employment. Once his secret was out, Ram Persad left, and Balram was brought to Delhi as the driver of the Honda City.
Balram considers Delhi to be a crazy city, rife with traffic jams and pollution, and with illogically numbered houses and circuitous streets that are difficult to navigate. Ashok and Pinky Madam rented an apartment in Gurgaon, the most American part of the city, since Pinky Madam hated India and missed New York. Balram lived in the servant’s quarters in the basement of the building. Teased and ostracized by the other servants, he nevertheless found a mentor in a fellow driver he refers to as Vitiligo-Lips, since the pigment of the man's lips is affected by the skin condition vitiligo. To escape the teasing, Balram chose to live in a tiny, decrepit room swarming with cockroaches.
After a while, the Mongoose returned to Dhanbad, leaving Ashok as Balram’s sole master in Delhi. One night, a drunk Pinky Madam insisted on driving the car, and she accidentally killed a child in a hit-and-run. The next morning, the Mongoose arrived and announced that Balram would confess to the crime, and serve jail time on Pinky Madam’s behalf. Balram was terrified by the prospect of going to jail, but was relieved when the Stork arrived and casually mentioned that they had gotten out of the incident through their police connections.
During this time, Balram's political consciousness grows more intense, and his resentment towards the upper class more violent. Much of the novel traces his growth from a meek peasant to an inflamed individual capable of murder in pursuit of his own success.
A few days later, Pinky Madam found Balram and asked him to drive her to the airport. With this abrupt departure, she ended her marriage to Ashok. When Ashok discovered that Balram took her to the airport without informing him, he furiously attacked the driver, who defended himself by kicking Ashok in the chest.
Dealing with the divorce, Ashok began to live a debauched lifestyle, frequently getting drunk and going out to clubs, while Balram cared for him like a wife. Ashok rekindled a relationship with his former lover, Ms. Uma. Their relationship grew more serious, but he remained anxious about telling his family about her. Meanwhile, on his family's behalf, Ashok frequently collected large sums of money in a red bag, using it to bribe government ministers.
Balram’s family sent a young male relative, Dharam, for Balram to care for. Dharam is a sweet and obedient companion. One day, Balram took Dharam to the zoo, where Balram observed a white tiger in a cage.
Finally deciding to break free of the Rooster Coop, Balram fashioned a weapon from a broken whiskey bottle, and lured Ashok from the car. He rammed the bottle into Ashok’s skull, and then stabbed him in the neck, killing him. He stole the red bag, filled with 700,000 rupees, and escaped with Dharam to Bangalore. In revenge for his actions, the Stork’s family likely murdered all of Balram’s family, though Balram remains unsure of their exact fate. Nevertheless, he chose to commit the murder knowing this was a likely outcome.
In Bangalore, Balram found great success. He launched a taxi service for call center workers, which he calls White Tiger Technology Drivers. By bribing the police, Balram was able to gain influence and make his business successful. Demonstrating how far he has come, he is able to cover up a fatal accident through his connection to the authorities. He considers himself to be a quintessential entrepreneurial success story that represents the future of India, and presents himself as such to the Premier.