Having confessed his murder of Mr. Ashok and admitted that the act probably led to the murder of his own family in retribution, Balram next describes his former employers. Mr. Ashok was a six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered man who was always kind and gentle to those around him. Mr. Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam, is just as good-looking as her husband was. As the man's murderer, Balram feels responsible for, and even “possessive,” of Mr. Ashok’s life (38). Despite committing the atrocious act, he insists he would never speak ill of the man, and will always protect his good name.
Balram worked for Mr. Ashok in the coal-mining city of Dhanbad, where he went after his father died. He tells of his father's miserable death from tuberculosis, which he contracted after years of pulling rickshaws in a polluted environment. Because there was no hospital in Laxmangarh, Balram and Kishan had to take Vikram to the government hospital across the river. There, they found a decrepit building where countless ill and injured people sat on newspapers, waiting in vain for a doctor to arrive. Because of a corrupt scheme that allows doctors to make extra money at private hospitals while ignoring the village hospital, thy rarely visit. Balram’s father died on the floor of the hospital without ever seeing a doctor.
A month later, Kishan was married. Because the family was marrying off a male, rather than a female, they were able to exploit the bride's family for a dowry and gifts. After the wedding, Kishan, Balram, and their cousin Dilip moved together to Dhanbad, partly to get more work, but largely because Balram had been fired from the tea shop in Laxmangarh for eavesdropping on customers. In Danhbad, they found work at a new tea shop.
Balram explains how tea shops work. He refers to the workers as “human spiders” who crawl throughout the shops doing menial and cleaning work, but stresses that an entrepreneur can learn much by eavesdropping (43). At the shop in Dhanbad, Balram overheard two customers discussing how drivers make high salaries, and he decided to try and find work as a driver.
However, Balram soon discovered that it would cost a hefty fee to learn how to drive. He persistently begged Kulsum for the money, and she eventually agreed that Kishan and Dilip could invest in the lessons, provided Balram promise to send most of his salary back home to his family. He readily agreed.
Though Balram finds a taxi driver interested in teaching him, the man is skeptical because Balram comes from a caste expected to be sweet-makers. He does not believe members of that caste possess the aggressive attitude necessary for a driver in India's crowded streets. However, Balram quickly exceeded the man's expectations, and as a reward, the instructor bought him a visit with a Nepali prostitute.
The next morning, Balram went to from door to door, trying to find a rich household that would employ him as a driver. Even though he pretended to have four years of experience, he met only failure as the servants turned him away before he could even pitch himself to the masters. At one gate, the servant was trying to dismiss Balram when the Stork emerged from the house. Balram immediately cried out that he was from the Stork's village, Laxmangarh, and then acted submissive enough to gain the man's sympathy.
After the Stork and his son, Mukesh Sir, looked into Balram’s family background, he was hired as a driver for Mr. Ashok, the Stork's other son who had just arrived back in India from his time in the United States. It was fortunate that Mr. Ashok had just arrived, since the family already had a primary driver, Ram Persad. Balram was to drive the standard Maruti Suzuki as the "second" driver, while Ram Persad drove the more desirable Honda City (52).
Balram explains that it was to his advantage that the masters could easily locate his family, since the threat of retribution against a family usually works to keep a servant in line. As an example, he explains how the Buffalo once killed his servant's entire family after suspecting the servant was involved in kidnapping one of the Buffalo's sons.
Balram then reflects on the caste system in India. He argues that the old days of a rigid caste system were easier - everyone was “in his place, everyone happy” with the multitude of identities. However, the end of British imperial rule brought chaos, as that multitude of castes was split into two basic groups: the rich and the poor, “Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies” (54).
He returns to his story, and explains how he was satisfied with his situation as driver and servant to Mr. Ashok, Mukesh Sir, and the Stork. He was proud to have a uniform (like the one he used to admire on Vijay), and was pleased to have an ample supply of food and a covered room for shelter, even though he had to share the room with Ram Persad, who took the bed for himself and forced Balram to sleep on the floor. Once a month, Kishan visited, and took the majority of Balram's salary to send back to Laxmangarh.
Though officially hired as a driver, Balram was expected to perform a variety of household tasks, including massaging the Stork's feet in warm water. At least once a week, Balram accompanied Ram Persad to the liquor shop, to buy expensive English whiskey for the Stork and his sons. He and Ram Persad had a tense, competitive relationship, in which the latter constantly treated Balram as inferior. Naturally, Balram resented this treatment. Balram adds that he was responsible for washing and blow-drying Cuddles and Puddles, the two white Pomeranian puppies owned by Mr. Ashok and Pinky Madam.
Despite the servant duties, Balram truly enjoyed his life, partly because Mr. Ashok treated him with some respect. He tells of one day when Mr. Ashok visited the room where Ram Persad and Balram slept, and was shocked to see the poor conditions in which they lived.
One day, Mr. Ashok decided that he wanted to visit Laxmangarh, his birthplace. Balram drove him and Pinky Madam there in the Honda City (the nicer car), excited to make a grand return to his hometown. During the drive, Pinky Madam complained about India, and confessed her anxiety to return to the United States. She did not believe Ashok truly wanted to return to New York, but he dismissed her concerns.
When they arrived at the Stork’s mansion in Laxmangarh, Pinky Madam and Mr. Ashok had lunch in a magnificent dining room decorated with a chandelier. Meanwhile, Balram reconnected with his family, who waited outside the mansion gates to see him. Kusum criticized him for failing to send money during the past few months, but she and everyone else were duly impressed by his achievements.
They go together to the family's house, where Kishan catches Balram up on news from the village. The Great Socialist, the corrupt politician who controls the Darkness with empty promises of equality, had maintained his power, even though Naxal terrorists were violently protesting his reign. Balram mentions that "small people" like his family were "caught in between" such struggles (73).
When Kusum announced her decision to marry Balram off, he angrily refused, and threw his chicken curry onto the floor. He explains to the Premier that he was angry about how his family had used Kishan to obtain dowry gifts, and that he feared they meant to bleed him dry until he died miserably like Vikram did. Despite Kusum's protestations, he stormed out of the house, and began climbing up towards the Black Fort.
To describe his experience at the Fort, Balram quotes another Iqbal poem, which describes how the Devil rejected his role as a servant to God. Thinking back on the experience, he envisions himself as a devil-like figure who was spitting in God's face as he viewed Laxmangarh and the Ganga from the raised vantage. After half an hour, he returned to the Stork’s mansion without stopping to apologize to his family.
He drove Ashok and Pinky Madam back to Dhanbad, zooming past the village scenery and silently pledging never to return. During the drive, Mr. Ashok admitted to Pinky Madam that he did not want to return to New York, explaining that he enjoyed his lifestyle in India and felt optimistic about the country's future. At one point, when Balram randomly touched his finger to his eye as the car passed a temple, Ashok misinterpreted the gesture as one of religious deference. Noting that Mr. Ashok appreciated his piety, Balram began to exaggeratedly perform religious gestures at various times during the drive.
On the way home, they encountered a political demonstration, wherein men in red headbands were proclaiming their support for the Great Socialist.
The second chapter of The White Tiger contains some of the novel’s most powerful critiques of India's government. It explores the failure of government infrastructure and institutions, the pervasiveness of government corruption, and the faults of a class structure that restricts social mobility. Through Balram's story, Adiga makes a pervasive attack on a system that is rigged against the majority of its citizens.
And yet the novel remains so enjoyable because of Balram's voice. Even as he describes heartbreaking moments like his father's miserable death at the inadequately-staffed hospital, he maintains an attitude of darkly comic, jaded cynicism. For example, he wryly observes that while there is no hospital in his village, “there are three different foundation stones for a hospital, laid by three different politicians before three different elections” (39). No matter what one feels about Balram, it is obvious that he is as observant as he claims to be. He notices the way things work, and the deep divide between that and what is promised.
This combination of shrewd insight into the realities of his surroundings, combined with a deeply sardonic, often mocking tone, is in fact the defining element of Balram’s personality. While the opening chapter established this aspect of his persona, this second chapter uses more indirect means to characterize him and his contradictions. Significantly, it reveals how shrewd and manipulative he is. He consistently shapes his behavior before people in power in order to pursue his own goals. Most obviously, he feigns obsequiousness and exaggerated respect in order to ingratiate himself with rich and powerful characters such as the Stork. Though he notes that most servants employ this tactic in one way or another, his pronounced gift for it proves crucial in propelling him from his humble background to his future as a successful entrepreneur.
And yet most impressive is how much Balram reveals to the reader that is not entirely clear to himself. For instance, the fact that he never mentions his failure to send money home until it manifests in another character's critique suggests that he has an ability for self-deception. He is able to ignore his unattractive qualities while representing himself to the Premier, suggesting that he is at his core an unreliable narrator. It is less likely that he deliberately misrepresents himself, since he is so straightforward about so many other atrocious thoughts and behaviors, and more likely that he has simply been corrupted into self-delusion by a system that does not allow him to pursue his individual goals while remaining true to others. He cannot stew in his guilt in he wants to move forward in life, and yet he cannot move forward without feeling guilt.
However, the most complex manifestation of his contradictions lies in most important and most complex relationship, that with Mr. Ashok. The respect and admiration which Balram evinces for his former employer initially seems incompatible with the fact that he eventually murdered the man. His ambiguous sense of responsibility for Ashok suggests the complexities of the servant/master relationship. The men are inexorably linked, a twinned pair with each corresponding to one half of the dual India, the Dark and the Light. One instance that literally evokes this link between Balram and Ashok occurs when Ashok visits Balram’s room in the servant’s quarters. Balram recalls that Ashok “sat down on Ram Persad’s bed and poked it with his fingertips. It felt hard. I immediately stopped being jealous of Ram Persad” (67). In this moment, a strange, almost surreal confluence takes place between the consciousness of Ashok, who actually felt the surface of the bed with his fingertips, and Balram, who seems to experience Ashok’s own physical sensations and respond to them. Since the scene is recounted from Balram’s perspective, it is clear that Balram believes intuitively in a link between himself and Ashok.
Ultimately, Adiga is suggesting the perversity of such a rigid class system. That Balram can continue to love a man whom he viciously murdered is not meant as a critique on the character, but instead of the forces that pervert a man like him. He can never totally eschew his lower class roots - which taught him to be servile - even when he develops ambitious dreams of improving himself. He is ruined by his contradictions, until he violently extricates himself from them. And even then, they continue to manifest through what he communicates in spite of himself.
Finally, it is worth considering the animal imagery, which serves as a significant motif throughout the novel. From the central metaphor of Balram as “The White Tiger” to the names of the landlords (The Stork, the Wild Boar, the Raven, and the Buffalo, the Mongoose), Adiga constantly invokes animals to extrapolate character and class. Another significant animal metaphor that surfaces in this chapter is that of the “human spiders” who work in tea shops, an image that vividly conjures the dehumanizing impact of such menial labor, performed unthinkingly by unambitious men who are resigned to their place in the restrictive social hierarchy. Unlike Balram, these "spiders" do not dream of a better position in life. Along with the metaphor of the rooster coop introduced later in the novel, this animal imagery serves as a mechanism by which Balram classifies and explains the world around him, both to himself and to his audience. That he cannot stop thinking of himself as part of the animal kingdom even after he has ostensibly declared his singularity suggests how fully torn he is between his past and future.