Aravind Adiga;The White Tiger is the credit-crunch Booker

The author, who has just won the Booker with the tale of an Indian killing his way to the top, explains why such murders don’t happen in the west

 Aravind Adiga;The White Tiger is the credit-crunch Booker
‘We all live in the greatest democracy on earth . . . what a f****** joke.” So the newest Indian literary idol, Aravind Adiga, sets out his stall in his incendiary, bitterly hilarious and Man Booker prize-winning first novel, The White Tiger. Adiga gives democracy a relatively easy ride – it’s free market capitalism that takes the real hiding.

The White Tiger is the credit-crunch Booker. It tells the story of an Indian driver turned entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, who murders his way out of poverty. Its narrative – as recounted in letters from Halwai to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister – is an acidic look not only at the fearful gulf between the gilded financiers of the new India and the dirt-poor underclass of India’s “darkness”, but also at the social turbulence that goes with global capitalism. And, if this seems a soft target now, consider that Adiga, a former business journalist, wrote his first draft in 2005 when India’s economy was travelling like a runaway train.

“You could not have more of a book for our present predicament,” remarked Ion Trewin, the prize’s administrator. Adiga agrees. On receiving his cheque for £50,000 (to be deposited in the first bank that he can trust) he announced: “There’s been a need for a book like this.”

When we meet in central London, Adiga – with over tired eyes burning in his lean, shaven head – is less bombastic. “When you live and work on your own, as I do, writing takes a long time,” he says, in his Anglicised Indian brogue. “You can keep producing shit and you’re always wondering whether you should stop. I’m so glad I had friends who told me to keep going.”

At 33 he has become the second youngest and only the third debut novelist to win the prize. How Adiga – the son of a surgeon – came to write such a fiery interrogation of caste and rank is a story in itself.

Born near Madras, he attended an “excellent” private Jesuit school before moving to Australia after the death of his mother for his final school years. At 18 he left for New York to study English at Columbia. “I was clue-less,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how to dress, I didn’t know where to go. I was suddenly aware of being an immigrant. I remember, when I went back to India, seeing all these poor people who have emigrated from the villages into Delhi by train and thinking: I know how you feel.”

The greatest revelation of those years was not oppression but equality: he discovered in Australia and America what it is like to be free of the caste system. His return to India was a shock: “I had forgotten what it is to be well-off. Not to be embarrassed to do things for myself.” In India, people of his background assumed they were born to be served and that others were born to serve them: Adiga no longer could.

Columbia’s Upper West Side campus brought his nose to the window of Harlem. “I was intrigued by black people, because they were all around, but culturally they seemed so alien. I knew nothing about them and the only way to understand them, it seemed, was through novels.” Adiga fell upon the work of black American writers, including Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, and was smitten. “They wrote about class and race,” he says. “It intrigued me, because so many of the things they talked about could be applied to India. This idea that, as a black man, you were invisible to other people, you were not a full human being. It occurred to me that India is full of invisible men and women – the working poor.”

From Columbia he moved to Magdalen College, Oxford, a brief spell at Princeton, an internship with the Financial Times and a job with Time magazine in Delhi and Mumbai. Adiga was determined to be a novelist. Journalism was a means to an end: it “put a gun” to his shy head and forced him to overcome his aloofness, to talk to people he did not know. “I didn’t want to write about people like myself,” he says.

If, as his critics point out gleefully, Adiga seems an unlikely champion for India’s underclass, it is a jibe that he has anticipated: “I’m also annoyed by these people [the poor]. The book is an exercise in maso-chism. I’m very much a part of the things I’m attacking.

“White Tiger is narrated by a murderer,” he continues. “He is not my spokesman. And you can either trust him or not. The things he talks about – the fact that India has become two countries, the great difference between the north and the south of the country – these are all commonplace political discussions in India today.

“In India it always used to be that if you were poor and someone else was incredibly rich, that was just a fact of life. In fact, even though much of India has always been poor, there was very little crime. But now the old bonds of community, caste and family are fraying. The temptations before a poor person are greater. You are suddenly aware of shopping malls, there are advertisements everywhere, you see your neigh-bours doing better than you. This leads to frustration and frustration to anger.”

Earlier this year Delhi was abuzz with the news that a servant had killed his mistress. The servant, in fact, was not the culprit but Adiga recalls the city’s businessmen displaying a vocal “paranoia” about their staff for weeks: “It was advance notice that the master-servant relationship is shaky.”

Last month workers at a car parts factory near Delhi murdered the chief executive after they were laid off. It was a shock for wealthy Indians, made worse by the labour minister who seemed to express sympathy for the workers.

“It rattled a lot of people,” says Adiga. “That kind of incident used to be highly unlikely. Now it is much more likely.”

If his social concerns sound worthy, think again. The White Tiger is a carnival of comic turns. Much of the hum-our comes from the narrator’s redrawing of tourist India through a local’s eyes. Halwai implores Wen Jiabao not to visit the picture-postcard Ganges: “I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion and seven different kinds of industrial acids.”

Many of the book’s most vivid incidents were drawn from Adiga’s journalism. One such episode – when Halwai has to shampoo his master’s haughty pomeranians – made it, unchanged, into the novel.

“I was staying once at a corporate guesthouse,” says Adiga. “At these places it is the servants that intrigue me because they get to see everything. The head servant told me about a very rich business baron, who insisted that his dogs be shampooed every night, and this servant hated doing it. The incident stuck in my mind. The idea that a man should be forced to shampoo a dog strikes me as cruel.”

If such “cruelty” led Adiga to question India’s class system, what does he make of Britain’s class-ridden society? “It seems to me that the English class system has always contained escape routes,” he says. “It is permeable – through schools and university and business and marriage. And any class system that survives has to include escape routes. There has to be a way for talented people from the lower classes to reach the top.”

He says India could learn some lessons from Britain: “The prevailing view is that India and China have been less affected by the financial crisis, that they will now surge ahead. It seems inevitable that they will emerge as the new power-houses. But they both have so much work to do first.

“India is a society of profound inequality and inequality is not just a moral vice – it also leads to instability.”

The new Indian fear of instability has affected him personally: in Mumbai he has had great difficulty in renting a flat because as a single man, he says, he is automatically suspected of being a terrorist.

Whatever happens in the corridors of Delhi, or the stock exchanges of Mumbai, one thing is sure: the publishing world should take a long position on Adiga’s future success. It is not just the strength of his writing they should bet on, it’s also his extraordinary ambition. He talks as if writing novels is the only thing he has ever done or could ever do and he does not want the fun to stop now: “Because God knows it was difficult getting here.”

Ed Caesar, 19th October 2008

Sunday, November 23rd 2008
Ed Caesar

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