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Aravind Adiga: Debut Novelist Wins Man Booker Prize

New America Media, Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Oct 15, 2008

How does a booming India look from the point of view of a have-not? Aravind Adigas The White Tiger is the story of a self-professed entrepreneur in India. Except he is a murderer. Balram Halwai has murdered his employer, Mr. Ashok and is now on the run. The White Tiger is both his story and the story of the faultlines in the new India. It just won Adiga the $100,000 Man Booker Prize. He spoke with New America Media editor Sandip Roy last month in Mumbai after the book was shortlisted for the prize.

MUMBAI, India. The constant talk these days is of the glitzy new India with 8 percent growth rate and then also the "real" India that is being left out of it. Where do you think Balram Halwai your main character, fits in this?

First of all both Indias are real. Neither is false. The past few years have created a spectacular amount of wealth in the middle class. And thats real. But the other India of 400 million people is also real. Many people are trying to make the transition from the poor India to the shining India and Balram Halwai, my protagonist is one of them. He grows up in a village in Gaya in Bihar, one of India's poorest states. And like so many thousands of others he has made the trip to Delhi in search of a better life.

So what's interesting about these two Indias, this successful India and the India of the darkness, are the people trying to make the jump from one to the other. Making the transition is very difficult because those in the poorer India don't have the basics of education, healthcare or employment to make the jump. You are leaping by yourself without any help from anyone else from the 19th century to the 21st century.

In India you see this plethora of how-to-succeed books. Every pavement bookseller has them. So this drive to succeed is not just limited to those who went abroad to study. It's much more all-pervasive.

The drive and the desire to succeed is all pervasive. But the question is the capacity. Everyone has this ideal. But that's both great and troubling because I don't think many of the poorer people have the basic foundation that they need to actually achieve that success. A basic requirement of the entrepreneur today is education and education in English. And if you don't have this, as many of the poorer Indians don't, you'll find quickly enough there's not a whole lot you can do. And once your dreams get thwarted that leads to frustration and potentially to social disruption. That's the danger to me that we have of the myth of entrepreneurial success being sent out to all India, which is great and stimulating and getting all sections of society restless. But we haven't provided the foundations to large numbers of Indians to make that dream into reality. What happens when these poor Indians realize its not that easy to succeed?

Well hopefully what happens is not that you kill your employer as Balram Halwai does. The image of the loyal family servant, who sees all and knows all, but serves unflinchingly, is hallowed in India. But given this yawning gap between classes isn't it surprising more servants have not killed their masters?

The book is called The White Tiger which is meant to be a metaphor for an exceptional individual. My character keeps reflecting on the fact that more servants don't kill their masters. The very fact that he does makes him stand out. I am using it as a thought experiment, this image of the white tiger, the servant who takes on the master to explore the bigger question.

Middle class Indians are paranoid about crime but the data suggests there is very little crime in India. South Africa with 40 million people has more crime than India with 1.1 billion. It's extraordinary. So I got to thinking what keeps servants honest and is there any danger the system could break down.

The White Tiger is an exploration of what are the social conditions? (It) ultimately comes down to India's strong sense of family, clan and caste, that keeps servants tied to their masters, even when they have the opportunity on a daily basis to rob and to do worse, to their masters. The servant's sense of identity, being tied into his village, his family, is what keeps him honest. While my character Balram is very unusual, it's possible that things are starting to change in India and things may come to a stage where my character may be more common unless things change and conditions improve for the poor.

Would you say there is an undercurrent of resentment that India's new elite ignores at it's own peril, like the French aristocrats from 200 years ago?

It's not just an undercurrent. You have this gigantic Maoist rebellion in India. When I was a boy, there was a (Maoist) rebellion in India that seemed to be dying out. One of the surprising things was that in the mid-1990s even as the great economic boom began, at a time when Communism vanished from most parts of the world, it took on a second birth in India and has been spreading ever since. So in large parts of the country the government cannot claim it actually exercises full control. After dark you can't go through certain parts of India.

A new kind of resentment is being born in India as I felt as I traveled across the country (writing) for Time magazine. The Indian media is focused on certain divides in the country like the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims, or caste divides. But there is a new, very primordial, class divide between people who feel they have and people who feel they have not. And it has to be acknowledged and addressed.

Why have you said this book is indebted to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin?

Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man right after the Second World War. It's a book that suggests the metaphor of invisibility as a way of understanding the African American experience of that time where the central character feels he is invisible just because the white people around him don't see him as a human being.

When I came back to India after a long stint in the United States, I was struck by how many invisible men are around us in India. When you are in a car in New Delhi, there is invariably a chauffeur. The person who owns the car is almost never driving it. And he conducts a conversation with you in the backseat in which he can discuss all kinds of things about his private life and there is another man in the car, the servant who can understand what is being said, but he's almost not there. He's part of the machinery and there are so many invisible men in India today.

There are three writers - Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, who dealt with race and class along with racial issues, and they form a template that can be moved onto India today. Our poor are almost invisible in a way that African Americans were invisible then. And also a lot of rich Indians think of the poor as a distinct race in a sense. The poor in India tend to be darker, leaner, physically different. The difference between the haves and have nots is almost a physical, corporeal, racial difference in India.

Has anyone ever come up to you at a party and said "You are so right. You just can't trust the servants these days."

There is an increasing anxiety about servants in India. People who have read my book and are from outside India ask me if servants are taking to crime. And I say you are asking the wrong question. You are focusing on the servants. What has changed is the masters are increasingly paranoid because they are the ones who realize that this can't continue. Paranoia is the first sign of a change that is to come.

I dont think middle class Indians are fundamentally bad. I don't think they want to treat their servants badly. But if you have 7 or 8 people who are prepared to work for you for 100 dollars a month, why would you say no to that? The greatest luxury of all is to have human beings wait upon you. But even while doing that you can be conscious that the system is not good. Many middle class and rich Indians are happy to enjoy the system while it lasts. But many tell me they want things to change. I hope one of the things that comes across in the book is that the master, Mr. Ashok, the middle class person, is also in a sense entrapped by the system.

Ashok, the master, is not a bad man. He has come back from abroad, is fairly liberal and has twinges of conscience.

The middle class are aware things are not going well but when they are in trouble the system works to their advantage. When a middle class person commits a crime against a poorer person the system lets him get away with it. When he doesn't pay his taxes, the system lets him get away with a small bribe to the tax commissioner. Many middle class people are aware the system needs to be fixed. But while they are liberal they don't have the conviction to carry reform through.

The servant here is telling the story from his point of view. You never really get to hear the master's point of view. I didn't want an evil master or sentimental exploited servant. The poor in India are increasingly taking their destiny into their own hands. This does not mean they are doing things that are to their own benefit. They are voting in the wrong politicians such as supporting ultra-Communist rebellions. But they are increasingly agents of their own destiny.

When (you ask) servants what keeps them from taking their master's money and running, one of the responses you get is 'If I take the money, I'll have to leave my family and what kind of life would I have without my aunt and my uncle?' Their sense of self is still fixated on the family.

As the sense of thinking of yourself as an individual grows, one of the things that is likely to increase is the temptation to crime. The idea of cutting yourself off from your past and starting again becomes feasible. And it means you can be an entrepreneur or a criminal.


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