We learn Balram's life story courtesy of letters he has taken upon himself to write to the premier of China. He wrote these letters to educate the premier so that he wouldn't be fooled by any of the false pictures the politicians he meets might paint about life in India when he comes for his official state visit. Balram decides the best way for the premier to understand what life in India is like is by telling him the story of his, Balram's, life.
The first lesson Balram has for us is the reality of rural life in India. In his small village everybody is beholden to one of four landlords. If you want to grow anything you have to pay money to one person. If you want to graze animals you have to pay money to another. If you want to use the roads to make money as a rickshaw driver, you pay 10% of everything you earn to a third. Finally, the fourth one owns the waters. If you want to fish or use the water to transport goods, you pay him.
It's after Balram's family is forced to borrow money from one of the landlords to pay for a cousin's dowry that he has to leave school and start working in teahouses. Balram is destined for greater things, though, and his grandmother comes up with 600 rupees so he may learn to drive and get a job driving for a wealthy man. Through blind luck he happens to show up at his landlord's compound on the day the youngest son has returned from America and needs his own driver. This begins his long climb out of the darkness of poverty.
Balram is not just a driver. It turns out he's expected to cook, clean, and do whatever else his new master needs him to do. When his master moves to New Delhi, Balram moves with him and drives him around the capital as he greases the palms of all the various political fixers and parliamentarians that need greasing in order to ensure the family business survives. One hundred thousand rupees here, two hundred thousand there, and Balram sits in the front seat seeing nothing, but witnessing it all.