Introducing himself as “The White Tiger,” Balram Halwai writes a letter to "His Excellency Wen Jiabao," the Premier of China (1). The entire novel is narrated through a collection of these letters.
Because the Premier is soon to visit India to learn from the nation’s burgeoning culture of entrepreneurship, Balram has decided to share his own story of entrepreneurial success. He believes his rags-to-riches tale will show the Premier “the truth about Bangalore,” which would otherwise be obscured by propaganda and showmanship meant to impress him (4).
Balram admits that he has no formal education, but has nevertheless developed into a “self-taught entrepreneur” (4). He vividly describes the chandelier that hangs above him in his office as he pens his letter, and boasts that he operates “the only 150-square-foot space in Bangalore with its own chandelier” (5). He looks through a miniature fan as it spins, thereby seeing the flashing light of the chandelier as though it were a strobe light.
Under the chandelier's refracted light, Balram begins his story. He describes an exchange between his former employer, Mr. Ashok, and Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam, in which they remarked upon Balram’s lack of basic schooling. Balram explains to the Premier that he, along with thousands of others in India's impoverished regions, are “half-baked,” pulled out of school after only a few years so they can work. However, Balram believes that being "half-baked" allows one to become a great entrepreneur, whereas “fully formed fellows” are destined to take orders from others (9).
As a means of introducing the basic facts about himself, Balram describes a police poster that details his likeness and information. The poster was made after what he euphemistically describes as “an act of entrepreneurship” that launched a national manhunt. The poster lists his alias as "Munna" and describes him as: five feet four inches; between 25-35 years of age; the son of a rickshaw puller; and having a “blackish” complexion and a thin, small build (10). Balram parses the poster sentence-by-sentence, expounding upon various details in order to describe his background and early life.
His parents had never bothered to give him a true name; he was simply called "Munna," which translates to "boy" (10). On his first day of school, his teacher Mr. Krishna was shocked at the boy's namelessness, and dubbed him “Balram,” after the god Krishna's sidekick.
Balram also explains that his village, Laxmangarh, is part of the “Darkness,” the impoverished part of India that stands in stark contrast to “the Light” (11). The name details how the the Ganga river, with its suffocating, noxious mud, brings “darkness” into the country distant from the ocean. Elucidating his relationship with the river, Balram recounts his mother's funeral, which occurred when he was about seven years old. Her body was dumped into the river while decorated lavishly with silks and garlands. For Balram, the grandeur of her funeral stood in contrast to the misery she experienced while alive, and he believes it indicated that his “family was guilty about something” (13). Using vivid and gruesome imagery, Balram describes the mud enveloping his mother’s corpse, which seemed to fight against its own destruction. The horrific sight caused Balram to faint.
Balram then describes the impoverished state of his village, which he notes is nothing like the idyllic image of village life that the government paints for outsiders. In truth, his entire village is dominated by four landlords, dubbed the Buffalo, the Stork (Thakur Ramdev), the Wild Boar, and the Raven. These men own the river, land and roads, residing in high-walled mansions on the outskirts of the village as they charge the peasants exorbitant fees for using their resources.
It is a miserable life, and so Balram's father - Vikram Halwei - hoped Balram would remain in school to escape it. Once, Balram refused to return to school because one of his classmates discovered his pathological fear of lizards and then held a lizard against his face to torment him. Angry, his father went to the school himself and killed the lizard for his son. His father's plans were often dismissed by Kusum, Vikram's mother and Balram's grandmother, especially since Balram's brother Kishan already worked. Nevertheless, Vikram always stood by his intentions.
Balram also mentions a man named Vijay who lived his village, but worked for the bus company. Because of Vijay's uniform and bearing, Balram idolized the man, dreaming of becoming someone who seemed equally important. Vijay came from the same place Balram did, and so his success provided a reason for Balram to hope for better.
Balram returns to the police poster details, describing through them how was employed as a driver at the time of the as-yet-identified crime, and how he was known to be carrying a bag filled with seven hundred thousand rupees in it. Luckily, the photograph on the poster was poor quality, and so nobody ever recognized him.
Unveiling the corruption endemic to the Indian education system, Balram describes how his teacher, Mr. Krishna, stole the government money allocated for school lunches and uniforms, justifying the behavior because he himself had not been paid for six months. Balram recounts an incident when a government inspector visited the school and was impressed with Balram's intelligence. He dubbed the boy a "White Tiger," a rare creature “that comes along only once in a generation” (30).
Despite his promising scholastic talent, Balram's family eventually removed him from school after one of his female relatives got married. It is traditional for the bride's family to throw a party and provide a dowry, and so peasants demand other peasant families throw lavish events, even though they often strain the other family's fragile finances. His family had taken a loan from the Stork to provide the dowry, and had to repay it. Balram had to work in a tea shop, but maintains that he received a better education there than he ever did in school. At the tea shop, he eavesdropped on conversations, always learning from his surrounding.
Balram concludes the first segment of the tale by ruminating upon a line from Iqbal, whom he believes is one of “the four best poets in the world.” Iqubal wrote “They remain slaves because they can’t see what is beautiful in this world” (34). Balram believes that he is different from India's other peasants; even at a young age, he saw “what was beautiful in the world,” and hence was not destined to remain a slave (35).
As evidence of this claim, he describes his childhood obsession with the Black Fort, an abandoned structure that sat at the top of a hill above his village. He was too scared to enter the fort until many years later, when he returned home while employed as a driver with Mr. Ashok. From that vantage, he surveyed his village. Eight months after that visit home, he slit Mr. Ashok's throat.
The opening chapter of The White Tiger is quite masterful for how fully it introduces the novel. It provides crucial exposition, lays the groundwork for the novel's central themes, introduces several key symbols, and extensively characterizes Balram through both direct and indirect means.
Arguably the novel's most pronounced quality is the narrator's voice. Balram’s tone as narrator is irreverent, confident, and bombastic, thoroughly infused with an acerbic irony that lends the novel a darkly comic air even as it expounds on depressing social realities. Balram mercilessly details the corruption and abject poverty that dominates “the Darkness” with an astounding amount of insight, but his jaded nature and sharp quips add a humorous edge to his social commentary. His irreverence extends from his matter of addressing the Chinese Premier - at one point, he admits that “I consider myself one of your kind” - to his attitude on religion, about which he comments that “all these gods seem to do awfully little—much like our politicians” (2, 6). His brutal honesty and engaging persona draw the reader in, so that we are entertained even as we are disgusted, and primed to be confused when he ends the section by admitting to a vicious murder.
Establishing the stark dichotomy between the rich and the poor in India, Balram frames his entrepreneurial journey — which, by the end of the chapter, is revealed to have been catalyzed by an act of violent crime — as an escape from the “Darkness” into the “Light.” This view of India's contemporary social hierarchy is in many ways the novel's central theme. Through Balram's life story, Adiga explores the life in a post-caste system India. He acknowledges the common depiction of an exotic, idealized peasant life, but uses his story to expose a far darker, more stifled life in the nation's extensive interior. Keeping with the use of humor to undercut his social purpose, he has Balram mention that he learned about China from the obviously idealized book Exciting Tales of the Exotic East.
The opening chapter also establishes the theme of identity. In particular, the novel explores how identity is malleable enough that one can construct one's own selfhood. Balram prides himself on being a “self-taught” entrepreneur; his transformation from a tea shop worker in the Darkness to a successful businessman in the Light is accomplished wholly through his own incentive (4). He is drawn towards capitalism because it provides this very potential.
Balram’s determination to take charge of his own identity can be traced through the many names he takes on throughout his life. At first, he is nameless, known simply as “Munna." Later, he passively accepts the name Balram, which labels him as a “sidekick,” still a subsidiary of another. It is therefore a crucial moment when the inspector dubs him the “White Tiger,” not only because it evoked uniqueness, but also because it distinguished him. He accepts this name because it allows him to define himself. As he notes in the chapter, “there will be a forth and fifth name too, but that’s late in the story” (30). The idea here is that the process of forging his own identity continues over the course of the novel and his life.
Adiga expounds on his themes through frequently used motifs and symbols, many of which are introduced as early as this chapter. The chandelier is one of the first. To Balram, this gaudy fixture symbolizes both his success at becoming a wealthy businessman and his success at moving from the Darkness into the Light. When he chops the light into a strobe effect with his fan, Balram is in effect suggesting his own omnipotence. He controls light and darkness, where he once was a slave to circumstance and others. Of course, the irony is that the chandelier is laughably out of place in such a small office space. (Also, later in the novel, Pinky Madam, a true member of the elite class, remarks that she finds chandeliers to be “tacky” (71).) Thus, the chandelier also demonstrates the meaninglessness of Balram’s achievement in a society that persistently oppresses its underclass, and reminds us that he will never be truly able to transition from his past life. That the chandelier functions both literally, in the way Balram intends, and ironically, for what it reveals about Balram to the reader alone, is a mark of Adiga's talent.
The Black Fort provides another significant symbol, representing all that fascinates and appeals to Balram about the Light of urban coastal India. While his childhood fears initially held him back from exploring the Fort and breaking free of the Darkness, he ultimately overcame these hesitations. It was when he returned to Laxmangarh, now wearing a uniform as Vijay had when Balram was young, that Balram was able to visualize how far he had come. He was for the first time worthy of entering the fort.
Another symbol introduced in the opening chapter is the lizard. Balram’s paralyzing phobia marks a source of physical and mental weakness that is exploited by others. The lizard represents the fears, cultural values, and superstitions that trapped Balram in the Darkness, many of which he seems to still fear hold him back. The extent to which he protests that he has transcended the Darkness give us much reason to wonder how truly free he feels. He holds onto certain fears - of cell phones, for instance - suggesting that though he has superficially transformed his entire life, all it would take is one lizard, as a manifestation of deeper fears, for him to revert to the timid peasant he once was.