Interviews

Archive: Interview with Aravind Adiga

UPDATE - August 2017: 
Aravind Adiga is on the longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature
 

 
 
 
From Asia Literary Review No. 10, Winter 2008
Interview by James Kidd
 
 
HAILED AS A SATIRICAL PORTRAIT of greed, corruption, ambition and violence in modern India, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, awarded the 2008 Man Booker Prize for fiction, breaks new ground in the literature of the subcontinent and in its approach to giving voice to the voiceless. One Indian commentator said the book possessed ‘every stereotype going’ and ‘took us back three decades’, another accused Adiga of mimicking V.S. Naipaul and talking ‘contemptuously about India’. The Economist, however, was far from expressing a solitary view when it dubbed Adiga ‘the Charles Dickens of the call-centre generation’ and ‘a new voice … as welcome, and as rare, as a fine ending’. 

     Adiga’s narrator is an extraordinary invention: Balram Halwai, a garrulous, bumptious and self-proclaimed entrepreneur who sits proudly beneath a chandelier in his otherwise empty Bangalore office, dictating his life story to the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao. It gradually becomes apparent that Balram’s autobiography doubles as confession, and that Balram, born into the poorest part of India – ‘the darkness’ – reaches for the light of economic prosperity by low cunning, naked ambition, larceny and chilling violence. 

     Balram is no two-dimensional Faustian interpretation. Having escaped the constraints of his primitive hometown, he becomes a driver for a wealthy Delhi businessman, Mr Ashok, who is bribing officials to avoid paying income tax. Being a chauffeur may turn Balram into a breathing metaphor for social mobility, but it also drives a universal subtext when Mr Ashok’s wife runs over a poor pedestrian and Balram is ordered to take the blame. 

     Adiga’s target is moral ambiguity and the ever-expanding greyness between the black and white of human existence, but his is a deft touch; echoed by Balram, his narrative voice variously elicits pathos, laughter, wonder and horror. In many senses, Balram reflects modern India’s myriad identities. There is a ruthless desire to escape the ‘rooster coop’ of India’s restrictive social structure and a strong sense of his origins. There is genuine affection for his master and boiling hatred, too. Balram is both liberated and damned by his actions. As the novel ends, it is left to the reader to decide if Balram has achieved freedom, isolation or madness. Then again, as Balram says on more than one occasion, has it all just been a ‘fucking joke’?

 


James Kidd 

 

Aravind Adiga ...

 

... on being awarded the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

 

Getting longlisted was something I thought was realistically possible, but every step beyond seemed impossible. This is one of the world’s biggest literary prizes, and to have won it with a first book is quite incredible, and especially with a book like this. The White Tiger wasn’t written to ingratiate itself with readers anywhere. It was meant to provoke. It was not meant to be bed-time reading. 

 

 ... on staying grounded in India.

 

I am speaking to you on a beach in Mumbai. There are about 500 people around, and nobody gives a shit. People are going about the business of daily life. They worry about their next drink of water, about finding a roof for the night. In India, everything is put in perspective for you. And I wanted to see the world changing from one of the places that was leading that change – and that was India. 

 

... on his formative years.

 

I was born in Chennai, in the south of India. I lived there until I was sixteen-and-a-half. After my mother died, my father migrated and took me with him. My brother had gone to the United States some years earlier. I lived in Australia for about two-and-half years. It was a difficult transition. My problems were more internal, I think, than external. I was kind of alone. My mother had passed away. I was just with my father. I didn’t enjoy my schooling too much. 

     I thought going to New York would be great and liberating. I did my Bachelor’s in literature in New York, and I did my Master’s at Oxford. Then I got into journalism. I did get onto a PhD programme at Princeton to study 

     W.B. Yeats, but I rejected them because I realised I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to get out and see the world. Not just geographically, but to see people I wouldn’t normally as a middle-class person. Getting into journalism helped that. I came back to India for Time magazine. I was a reporter for about three years.

 

... on learning to talk.

 

Working for Time forced me to take seriously a whole class of people who had been present when I was growing up – chauffeurs, night-watchmen, cleaning ladies. They are almost like automata in the life of many middle-class Indians. They are all around you when you are growing up and they sort of blend in like machines. When you are a reporter, you talk to people you wouldn’t talk to normally. You ask them about politics, about how they live, about the economics of their lives. You learn to talk to them, but not in the way in which you were conditioned to do by your middle-class upbringing. And eventually you start talking to them all the time and you hear a different voice entirely. It changes the way you see this vast underclass of Indians. This voice, the voice of these poorer men you hear as you travel India, is compelling – it’s so quirky, so funny. And in some ways it’s disturbing, too. It summons itself, forces you to write about it. 

     Almost by default, any novelist open to the entire spectrum of society would pick someone like Balram to write about. Many Indian readers have told me that Balram is too smart for a driver, for a man of his class. He seems too chatty, too quick. It was important that he was complex. 

     If a poorer person is present in cinema or books, in as much as they are present at all, they appear as stock, clichéd characters – weaklings you can be sympathetic to. That is a sentimentalised, condescending portrait of the poor. It makes them lesser figures. The actual people you talk to and interact with are just as human as you are. They don’t tend to be nicer people; denying that in novels denies them a fundamental aspect of their humanity, which is the right to make evil choices. The two privileges accorded to the middle class in Indian literature that are denied to the poor tend to be a sense of humour and the capacity for vice. It was important that Balram, though he is a poor man, has both those privileges – that he could be funny and he would have the capacity to do something disturbing.  

 

... on tone and mood in The White Tiger.

 

This is not a social activist novel, as the critics keep saying; it is meant to be a work of literature. I think it has been misread by a lot of people who assume that Balram speaks for me. I think anyone reading The White Tiger will immediately understand that the reader is not meant to identify with Balram in any obvious way. In fact, he appears to be leading the reader into a trap to empathise with him. It is meant to be disturbing and it is meant to hurt. It is meant to puzzle the reader and to be remembered. It was important that Balram be funny. Humour is one of the things that draw the reader into the story. A narrative that disturbs the reader should still be compelling, entertaining and rewarding until the very end. A lot of Balram’s humour is a trap, I think. You are meant to see things from his point of view, while being conscious that he may not be telling you the truth. 

 

... on the social responsibility of the writer.

 

One of the points of The White Tiger is to change the conditions for people like Balram while we still can. Everyone now in India, poor and rich, has the same dreams. This is new. To take control of your own life, to become an entrepreneur, to get rich quickly, is now a fairly common dream. You don’t want to wait three or four generations. But only the middle class and the rich have access to the education, the health care, the law and order system that will help them get there. By some estimates there are between three and four hundred million people who barely get by. I come to this problem not as a social critic or as an activist, but as a writer who wants to write a book. If you write about middle-class Indians, that novel may be true to experience, but it leaves out a vast proportion of society. I want readers, and especially the middle-class readers here in India, to realise that unless the poor are given the infrastructure to achieve their dreams – schools, better hospitals, a responsible police system – they will have few options other than crime or radical politics to achieve their goals. I don’t know if a novel can change anything, but I at least want to stir debate, to get people talking and thinking. 

 

... on his portrait of contemporary India.

 

The things that are depicted in the book – violence, rigged elections, corruption – all of these things happen in Balram’s part of India – in the north, along the Ganges. It’s his take on the political system, and why he doesn’t hold much stock by it. I think there is a bit of complacency about the fact that India is a democracy – the assumption being that democracy is enough to fix everything – whereas, if the system is broken, it won’t do anything. Social mobility in India is always going to be more limited for someone like Balram. But what might have just been a normal way of living to Balram’s father will now seem like a trap to the son. The perception of the social order is changing, and therein lies the potential for unrest. 

     When I talked to a lot of servants, it surprised me that you can simultaneously hate and love your master. Often, the relationship is as complex as that of lovers. There is an incredible intimacy that masters and servants are brought into by the system in India. In The White Tiger, Ashok is as trapped in the system as much as Balram, who eats his master up, devours his master’s voice. Balram doesn’t let Ashok speak or give his side of the story. His master isn’t as bad as some of the other people you meet in the novel, but he doesn’t understand Balram and is condescending towards him, though there are numerous scenes where Ashok knows less than his servant. Balram loves magazine articles and radio programmes about important men. He thinks of himself as someone who has done something important in life. 

     Indians have historically looked to outsiders and are sensitive about what outsiders think of them; it’s part of the colonial legacy. Increasingly now, the obsession within India is with China. Indian newspapers and business newspapers are all obsessed with the differences between India and China. China is an alternative to India in many ways. In some sense, the future of the world will be shaped by how these two countries handle questions of their poor and social unrest. Balram is one of the forces changing India. He has a new kind of aggressiveness and competitiveness. I would like to point out that his character is more complex than that. But clearly some of the drives in him are this aggression and this ruthlessness. If people like him are participating in shaping the process of remaking India, and also China, then the question is: What kind of world are we going into? Is it really going to be a better world? Is it going to be more compassionate towards the poor?  

 

... on ambiguity.

 

I want the reader to be unsure how to interpret Balram. Is he the hero, the anti-hero, or just the villain? I wanted him to be a character we hadn’t seen in Indian fiction before – entirely ambiguous. Some of the early criticism was that Balram became good too quickly. A lot of people do read him as optimistic – he’s made it and he’s slowly changing into a better person. He’s never felt he’s had the luxury to be a moral person before. But now, on his own, he’s thinking about things and changing. 

     As he breaks out of a traditional way of life, there is a new energy, a new drive and new belief. Indian readers find this optimistic and uplifting. But in another sense, Balram is cut off. Despite his bravado, he’s also isolated and lost. He has no one to tell his story to, which is why he comes up with these imaginary interlocutors. A lot of people who initially read the book thought he was going mad. His story may not be the success he would like to present it as being, even after getting away with murder and the money. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether he has really succeeded. 

 

... on his forthcoming collection of short stories.

 

One of the things that fascinated me when I was travelling through small Indian towns was that the most common slogan scribbled on the wall is of a quack offering men relief from sexual problems. Visit these quacks and you see men lining up – poor men, of course, poor young men – and you realise that this is another side of India that you never hear about. These people don’t have the money for hospitals; they don’t have the education to go on the Internet and figure out what’s wrong with them. They are just lost. It is not that these lost men are more present in India than other countries. It’s just that they are never present in our literature or cinema, which obsessively focuses on large happy families. V.S. Naipaul once wrote that it is amazing how much confusion, solitude and loneliness you find in India. But these wandering men are also quite powerful because they can break the rules – they can help people they shouldn’t, and they can hurt people they shouldn’t. They can change society. 

     The stories are all set in the one Indian town. They are about people, and the moral decisions they must make. It was a conscious attempt to try to capture every section of Indian society. There are about fifteen stories in all, and each tries to tell the story of someone from a different religion, a different community, a different background. Sometimes a small Indian town can have the ethnic complexity of all of Europe. For generations, people just lived side by side, in very distinct ghettos. There is already an incredible complexity, this mind-boggling array of castes, of religions, of classes, without the political system constantly trying to reorder and homogenise. This ethnic complexity has not been captured in literature. I have tried to make each story different. 

     Some are funny and lighter. You will feel very little connection between the form, tone and structure of The White Tiger and these stories. 

 

... on his next novel.

 

I have been working on it for just over a year. In the way that the stories are very different from The White Tiger, the next novel is very different again. I write completely alone and I don’t show my work to anyone until it’s done. I don’t know if it is going to be good. I want to tell a completely new story about India and I know that, in trying to do something that is completely different, it can collapse. I run the risk of failing completely. But if the work doesn’t have the potential to fail, it can’t be good.

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