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Saturday, September 25, 2021

‘Provocation is one of the legitimate goals of literature’

Booker-winning author Aravind Adiga talks to Vijay Rana about dislocation, understanding India and the so-called ‘dark side’

Written by Vijayrana |
October 18, 2008 10:25:25 pm

Booker-winning author Aravind Adiga talks to Vijay Rana about dislocation, understanding India and the so-called ‘dark side’

When you began to write this book could you dream that it would take you to such heights?

No, when I was writing this book it was a very difficult time in my life. I had quit a full time job in Delhi with Time magazine at the end of 2005. So for the first time in my life I was, by choice, unemployed. But after eleven months, I still hadn’t done much. But yes, even to make the long list to the Man Booker prize is a great dream for a first time writer and then winning the prize; it’s quite extraordinary and I don’t think it has fully sunk in yet.

So quitting the job must have been a leap of faith, but then getting stuck and not making the desired progress must be frustrating. Were there any moments when you thought you’d made a mistake?

Oh absolutely! But the thing is that I am not married and don’t have a family to support. But I was getting older, and in 2006 I thought it was now or never. But you know being a good middle-class South Indian, I was very frightened of leaving my job but it got to the point where if I didn’t do it then, I never would. So I took the plunge.

Tell us something about your early life.

I was born in Chennai in October 1974. In 1980, my family went back to Mangalore, a much smaller town in those days. We lived there until 1990, when my mother suddenly died and my father decided to leave India for Australia. For my Bachelors I went to Columbia University. After that I got a scholarship to do my M. Phil in English literature at Magdalene College, Oxford. Then I wanted to see the world, and thought the way to do it was through journalism. I was very lucky because back in 2000, the economy was booming. I just made the switch from academics to journalism overnight. I interned with Financial Times and then got a job with Time magazine and got to Delhi in 2003, and in 2006 I moved to Mumbai.

Was there a sense of dislocation moving so quickly from one end of the world to the other?

I was 16 when my mother died. It was a traumatic time because my mother had died of a very sudden cancer that came on very quickly. It was a period when my life was utter chaos. Your question is an interesting one, especially when I was outside India. I was eager to come back to India but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought I would become an academic, but it was a confusing period. I knew I want to come back to India as a journalist. Then Time gave me a chance to come back.

What kind of things you were curious about in India?

I was very keen to travel in the north — the places that you hear about in the south — the cities like Benaras, Allahabad and Kanpur. When you were growing in south India, these places were completely cut off from you. In the forties, my father’s uncle had gone to Benaras Hindu University. But now the south is so far advanced in education and employment that there is a sense of estrangement from this traditional Indian hinterland and I was very curious to see this heartland of the country. I was very keen to see the UP and Bihar. I found that conditions are so different — things that you can’t imagine when you grow up in Mangalore, a lot more violence and a lot more poverty. So there was a real sense of discovery.

Michael Portillo, the chair of the jury mentioned ‘the dark side of India’ that you so vividly portray in The White Tiger. We have too often seen this dark side in the writings of Naipaul, Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, so how is the dark side different this time?

Well Naipaul is a different case, but I don’t think either Rushdie or Mistry portrayed the dark side. I don’t think mine does either. I think so much of literature that comes out of India does portray a very romanticised and idealised India, a middle-class India . It’s a particular literary India that has been created through novels and short stories and so forth. And anything that breaks the mould and tries to bring into focus a poorer person is immediately criticised for pursuing the ‘dark side’, showing poverty. I think this term is unfortunate. What I am trying to do is to expand the literary canvas to include a member of an Indian class, who is increasingly being written out not only from literature but also from Hindi film. You will rarely see a character like Balram Halwai in the films, although you will see them all around Delhi.

Some of the Indian critics were pretty harsh about this kind of portrayal?

I would like to say the book has done exceptionally well in India, long before this award, selling about 20,000 hard cover copies, that’s a huge number for India, or anywhere really. So clearly, people have responded well. Of course, some reviewers were upset. But when I was writing this book one of my aims was to provoke and even to disturb some people because I think I have a journalist’s instinct, unless something disturbs some people it can’t be good. I knew I was taking the risk of offending some people but frankly I think that provocation is one of the legitimate goals of literature.

Though it is all fiction, I tried to ensure a correlation with reality. Like Balram’s father, a rickshaw puller dies of TB, and every day in India, about a thousand people die of TB. So if the depiction of TB offends you, what you should do is to make sure that it is eliminated around you.

And finally have you found a bank to put your substantial award money?

(A big laugh) Well, I am taking it back to India and I can tell you it will be a nationalised bank. It will definitely be a government bank. Definitely not a private sector banks, that’s for sure.

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