THE WHITE TIGER
Since its Man Booker win, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger has sold over 285,000 copies in the UK alone. It has been sold to publishers for translation in over 26 countries.
I first read the book in May this year (and have been meaning to blog about it since then!), loved it and gave it a glowing review in the paper. When I visited India in June, I saw it had significant shelf space in the some of the hole in the wall bookstores you find next to the dhabas. It was a sign the book had arrived, well before the Booker judges ruled.
Aravind beat off competition from five other authors, including Amitav Ghosh, to win the prestigious literary prize this year. Judges felt the book won in the end because it "shocked and entertained in equal measure."
Michael Portillo, chairman of the judges said that through its protagonist Balram Halwai, "the novel undertakes the extraordinarily difficult task of gaining and holding the reader's sympathy for a thoroughgoing villain. The book gains from dealing with pressing social issues and significant global developments with astonishing humour."
I'd interviewed Aravind for another story after the big win. For those of you who missed it, here it is, in continuation of the spirit of sharing.
Q : Are you still surprised to see how well The White Tiger has travelled? Is the Booker recognition sinking in?
A : Yes, I'm absolutely delighted. It's my first novel: I had no idea how it would be received. Every young writer dreams of being on the short-list of the Man Booker Prize; I'm overjoyed that the White Tiger made it there.
Q : What about critics' reactions about the other India - the no saffron, no ornamental prose, no silk saris etc?
A : The book is set in the country I live in; and the problems that Balram Halwai, my protagonist, grapples are the problems that millions of Indians grapple with every day. Far too many Indian novels deal only with the middle-class. That class is real, but it covers only maybe one-third of this country. Below the middle-class starts another, greater India, of many hundreds of millions: men and women who are all but invisible in most Hindi films and English novels that come out of India. If this underclass is depicted, it is depicted incorrectly: the poor are sentimental, humourless, and obsessively religious weaklings who beg for the readers' pity. I've tried to capture a voice from the underclass that should delight, provoke, and disturb my readers.
Q : As a first time author was it hard to get your book published? Any painful rejections?
A : Yes, I've been rejected many times. It's especially a problem when you live in India, with no real community of writers or critics around you - there is no support network when you face rejection. But failure forces you to confront the core issues: why do I write, and what do I want to write about if no one, absolutely no one, will ever read my writing?
Q : I still marvel at the fact that you managed to balance your journalism with your fiction. Did the two ever get in each other's way?
A : I've always wanted to be a writer - there's never been any doubt in my mind as to which calling was more important. But you can't support yourself by churning out unpublished novels; and there is the danger that you get trapped in a room if you are just a writer. Journalism paid the bills, and gave me a chance to travel throughout India; it also forced me to overcome my innate shyness and talk to people. I always knew, however, that one day I would give up my job to write. I resigned from TIME magazine at the end of the 2005 to concentrate on my writing. Now I'm doing more journalism again.
Q : You've said Balram Halwai is a composite of various men. Who are some of these men? Did you entirely fictionalise the character?
A: Yes, Balram Halwai is a composite; many different men have been blended into this character and his voice. One example: some years ago, during my stay at a corporate guesthouse in Bangalore, I made friends with the cook, who was from Bihar. We got along famously. None of the other guests paid him any attention, but I found him delightful. He wanted me to buy him mutton (which was too expensive for him to get on his salary); in return, he told me stories about the rich men who had stayed at the guest-house, including one of India's most famous tycoons.
"The rest of the world thinks of that man as a saint," he said, "but I know the truth."
"What is the truth?" I asked him, as he was licking the mutton off his fingers.
"He makes his servants shampoo his dogs." He scowled in disgust. "What kind of human being forces another human being to clean his dogs?"
This became an episode in my novel; and the Bihari cook's tone of contempt towards the rich strengthened Balram Halwai's voice.
Q : What about Ashok? He has his moments, though the lesser ones seem to dominate.
A : I've never thought of Ashok as an evil man; he has quite a bit of myself in him. He's liberal and essentially decent, as most of the middle-class is in India; but he is weak. He recognises the political system around him as corrupt and unjust, yet allows himself to be sucked into it: when his wife is involved with a fatal accident, for instance. Far too many of the liberal middle-class know that something has to change with the system, but they also know, secretly, that the corruption of the system will work in their favour if they get into trouble. This reduces their incentive to change how things work. Therein lies a great danger for India: because in the end, a bad system will bite everyone, the rich and the poor alike. And indeed, the middle-class in India, people like Mr Ashok, are as much the victims of the system as the under-class, even if they haven't yet realised it.