India's dark side

Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, won the Booker prize but its unflattering portrait of India as a society racked by corruption and servitude has caused a storm in his homeland. He speaks to Stuart Jeffries

How do you get the nerve, I ask Aravind Adiga, to write a novel about the experiences of the Indian poor?

After all, you’re an enviably bright young thing, a middle-class, Madras-born, Oxford university-educated ex-Time magazine correspondent? How would you understand what your central character, the downtrodden, uneducated son of a rickshaw puller turned amoral entrepreneur and killer, is going through?

It’s the morning after Adiga, 33, won the £50 000 Man Booker award with his debut novel, The White Tiger, which reportedly blew the socks off Michael Portillo, the chair of judges, and, more importantly, is already causing offence in Adiga’s homeland for its defiantly unglamorous portrait of India’s economic miracle. For a Western reader, too, Adiga’s novel is bracing: there is an unremitting realism usually airbrushed from Indian films and novels.
It makes Salman Rushdie’s Booker-winning chronicle of post-Raj India, Midnight’s Children (a book that Adiga recognises as a powerful influence on his work), seem positively twee. The Indian tourist board must be livid.

Adiga, sipping tea in a central London boardroom, is upset by my question. Or as affronted as a man who has been exhausted by the demands of the unexpected win and the subsequent media hoopla can be. Guarded about his private life, he looks at me with tired eyes and says: “I don’t think a novelist should just write about his own experiences. Yes, I am the son of a doctor, yes, I had a rigorous formal education, but for me the challenge of a novelist is to write about people who aren’t anything like me.”

On a shortlist that included several books written by people much like their central characters (Philip Hensher, for example, writing about South Yorkshire suburbanites during the British miners’ strike or Linda Grant writing about a London writer exploring her Jewish heritage), the desire not to navel-gaze is surprising, even refreshing.

But isn’t there a problem: Adiga might come across as a literary tourist ventriloquising others’ suffering and stealing their miserable stories to fulfil his literary ambitions? “Well, this is the reality for a lot of Indian people and it’s important that it gets written about rather than just hearing about the 5% of people in my country who are doing well. In somewhere like Bihar there will be no doctors in the hospital. In northern India politics is so corrupt that it makes a mockery of democracy. This is a country where the poor fear tuberculosis, which kills 1 000 Indians a day, but people like me—middle-class people with access to health services that are probably better than England’s—don’t fear it at all.

“At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the West, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That’s what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies. That’s what I’m trying to do—it’s not an attack on the country, it’s about the greater process of self-examination.”

That, though, makes Adiga’s novel sound like funless didacticism. Thankfully—for all its failings (comparisons with the accomplished sentences of Sebastian Barry’s shortlisted The Secret Scripture could only be unfavourable)—The White Tiger is nothing like that. Instead it has an engaging, gobby, megalomaniac boss-killer of a narrator who reflects on his extraordinary rise from village teashop waiter to success as an entrepreneur in the alienated, post-industrial, call-centre hub of Bangalore.

Balram Halwai narrates his story through letters he writes, but doesn’t send, to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. Jiabao is poised to visit India to learn why it is so good at producing entrepreneurs, so Halwai presumes to tell him how to win power and influence people in the modern India. Halwai’s story, though, is a tale of bribery, corruption, skulduggery, toxic traffic jams, theft and murder. He tells his reader that the yellow and the brown men will take over the world from the white man, who has become (and this is where Halwai’s analysis gets shaky) effete through toleration of homosexuality, too slim and physically weakened by overexposure to mobile phones.

Halwai has come from what Adiga calls the Darkness—the heart of rural India—and manages to escape his family and poverty by becoming chauffeur to a landlord from his village who goes to Delhi to bribe government officials. Why did he make Halwai a chauffeur? “Because of the whole active-passive thing. The chauffeur is the servant but he is, at least while he’s driving, in charge, so the whole relationship is subverted.” Disappointingly, Adiga knows of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic only from reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. But that dialectic is the spine of his novel: the servant kills his master to achieve his freedom.

The White Tiger teems with indignities masquerading as employee duties. Such, Adiga maintains, is India—even as Delhi rises as a more Eastern Dubai, call centres suck in young people from villages and India experiences the pangs of urbanisation that racked the West two centuries ago. “Friends who came to India would always say to me it was a surprise that there was so little crime and that made me wonder why.” Halwai supplies an answer: servitude. “A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99,9%—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude.” What Halwai calls the trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy; unlike China, he says, India doesn’t need a dictatorship or secret police to keep its people grimly achieving economic goals. “If we were in India now, there would be servants standing in the corners of this room and I wouldn’t notice them,” says Adiga. “That is what my society is like, that is what the divide is like.”

Adiga conceived the novel when he was travelling in India and writing for Time magazine. “I spent a lot of time hanging around stations and talking to rickshaw pullers.” What struck him was the physical difference between the poor and the rich: “In India it’s the rich who have problems with obesity. And the poor are darker-skinned because they work outside and often work without their tops on so you can see their ribs. But also their intelligence impressed me. What rickshaw pullers, especially, reminded me of was black Americans, in the sense that they are witty, acerbic, verbally skilled and utterly without illusions about their rulers.”

It is not surprising then that the greatest literary influences on the book were three great African-American 20th-century novelists—Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. “They all wrote about race and class, while later black writers focus on just class. Ellison’s Invisible Man was extremely important to me. That book was disliked by whites and blacks. My book too will cause widespread offence. Balram is my invisible man made visible. This white tiger will break out of his cage.”

For Indian readers one of the most upsetting parts of that break-out is that Halwai casts off his family. “This is a shameful and dislocating thing for an Indian to do,” says Adiga. “In India there has never been strong central political control, which is probably why the family is still so important. If you’re rude to your mother in India, it’s a crime as bad as stealing would be here. But the family ties get broken or at least stretched when anonymous, un-Indian cities such as Bangalore draw people from the villages. These really are the new tensions of India, but Indians don’t think about them. The middle classes, especially, think of themselves still as victims of colonial rule. But there is no point any more in someone like me thinking of myself as a victim of you [Adiga has cast me, not for the first time, as a colonial oppressor]. India and China are too powerful to be controlled by the West any more.

“We’ve got to get beyond that as Indians and take responsibility for what is holding us back.” What is holding India back? “The corruption, lack of health services for the poor and the presumption that the family is always the repository of good.”

Our time is nearly over. Adiga doesn’t know how he will spend his prize money and isn’t even sure if there’s a safe bank in which to deposit it. Doesn’t he fear attacks at home for his portrayal of India? After all, the greatest living Indian painter, MF Husain, lives in exile. “I’m in a different position from Husain.

Fortunately, the political class doesn’t read. He lives in exile because his messages got through, but mine probably won’t.”—

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