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'Dangers of ignoring India's poor are greater'

Last updated on: May 09, 2008 13:13 IST
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In Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, a lowly villager called Balram Halwai rises in the ranks when he becomes a chauffeur in an affluent family. Nothing that goes on around him -- be it politics or family feuds -- escapes his eye, even as he feigns to be a meek servant. As the novel progresses, the homicidal chauffeur makes his own destiny, and becomes an entrepreneur.

He even thinks he can lecture a visiting Chinese leader about India's social hierarchy and the rise of the new entrepreneurial community.

The first novel from journalist Adiga, 34, has been translated into at least 16 languages and has received excellent reviews in publications ranging from New Yorker to The Times, London.

He spoke to Arthur J Pais.

How did this book come about?

It came out of my experience of coming back to India. I grew up in the south; but I returned to the north (Delhi), after having lived in Australia, and studied English literature at Columbia University in New York and Oxford University. I lived abroad from the age of 15 until 28. Then I came back and worked for Time magazine in 2003.

As a correspondent for Time, I traveled a lot in places I hadn't seen before, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar. The book is a record of a discovery of a new side of India. These were an entirely new experience of India to me.

What was the most important of these experiences?

The first thing that came to mind that I had forgotten was the servant-master relationship, the class system in India. Especially in north India, even today, a middle-class person is well off and can have three, four servants, a driver, a gardener, someone to take care of the children.

The other thing that struck me is the disparity in income. The rich are so rich. The Indian economy is booming but the money was not really getting down to the poor and the difference in the world between the rich and the poor was phenomenal.

And that made you thinkĀ…

And this led to the question why there was so little crime in India compared to that in New York, South Africa and Latin America, where poverty is the leading cause of [the high rates of] crime. In India, even if there is a phenomenal disparity in wealth there is very little crime due to poverty. The novel began as a kind of an experiment.

What kind of experiment?

Like, I was looking into why the class system stays in place, why there is so little crime, and what the conditions would be for the system to break down.

Was there something that struck you most?

I was buying furniture in New Delhi five years ago and the storeowner said, `Don't give me cash, give me a deposit of Rs 1,000 [$25], and give the rest to the man when he delivers it.' So when the man came to my house -- and he was a very poor man -- he put down the furniture and then I paid him the money. Then he asked for a Rs 10 tip which I gave it him. I was amazed that this man who made a maximum of Rs 1,000 a month or perhaps even less, was taking a bundle of money to give to his master.

What was the biggest question that came to your mind?

I wondered what made this man and people like him honest? This is something people in India take for granted.

In essence, the novel began as a way of understanding this phenomenon. The social structure of the master and the servants, I realised, was not anything like in the [rest of the] world.

But your servant in the book is very different from the ones you have been talking about.

My character is someone who breaks the system and I began to wonder under what circumstances would a servant deliberately and cold-bloodedly kill his master and take his money. What kind of a man does he have to be. Increasingly, I have become convinced that the social structure in India is beginning to shake. I am not saying that it will fall apart but the potential for social disruption is growing by the day.

Why do you think so many poor people remain honest and faithful to their masters?

It is, like, basically you follow your dharma or code of life because who you are depends on the economic well-being of your family and the name your family has. You cannot take the money and run because that will put your entire family in peril or in disgrace. Now, I believe this extraordinary social structure is beginning to come apart to some extent.

What do you think are some of the causes?

The shameless way wealth is flaunted is extraordinary. Poor people [see] the money the very rich have. Migration of labor is increasing in a big way, especially in north India. Old traditional ties and social structure in the villages and small towns are disappearing, and social unrest and resistance are growing. The Naxalite [Maoist] movement is reviving in many parts of the country and is gaining strength. My novel attempts to look at what kind of man would be prepared to break the structure. You can in essence say this is a warning story, a fable of things that might lie ahead for India.

The book is certainly not about India shining. What could be the tagline for the book?

It could be Shining and Dark India. I believe both sides of India have to be represented in fiction. My concern is to look at the vast disparity.

White Tiger

Could some people mistake Balram's voice to be your own?

I am quite studious and most of my life has been spent reading. Some of his [Balram's] opinions are quite distasteful to me. But it was important to create a picture of someone who will challenge you as a reader; it was important not to create a sentimental portrait of an oppressed, poor person.

Some people may say that this is book very negative about India, and some may say that you received good reviews in the West because the book focuses on poverty and social ills in the country.

This is a book that makes a passionate case for the better treatment of two-thirds of [all Indians] -- who are poorer. It is an attack on the system that governs India. But the system is not the same as the people in India. The novel has received very good reviews in India, too. I don't think everyone in the West who reads the book will be happy with it.

Why is that?

I don't think many people in the West will take comfort from this figure, the main character in the book. It is not a figure they can patronise or condescend to. This character is very entrepreneurial and smart and he has a very negative view of Westerners and of white people. He is quite happy to take on the West. He is quite an aggressive, confident character.

This could have been easily a very big book, running into more than 500 pages. You have it under 300 pages.

I can't expect from the readers to put up with more. I can't stand long and boring books. I admire writers such as Orhan Pamuk especially for such books as My Name is Red. It is a deep book and yet it moves very fast. I don't think serious books should bore anyone.

The book is full of dark humour.

Outsiders don't realize how funny we Indians are -- how much wit and sarcasm is present in the day-to-day speech of poor people in states like Bihar. Poor Indians may have nothing else -- not even a roof over their heads -- but they always have one weapon to fight back with against the system: And that is humour.

Some people might say that filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen and K A Abbas in the 1960s and 1970s and a few novelists such as Kiran Desai have shown us the Invisible Man, the man who is always exploited.

These are great artists -- I think Kiran Desai is a tremendous writer. However, if I told you romantic love has been adequately covered in the works of Shakespeare -- Romeo and Juliet for instance -- and there is no need for anyone to write ever again about love, would that strike you as a clever suggestion?

To say that the divide between the rich and the poor, and the invisibility of the poor is an issue that has been `dealt with' is to trivialise its profound and perpetual importance. The problem is omnipresent, its manifestations keep changing, and literature and the arts have to keep responding.

Why is it important for a writer to focus on poverty and exploitation?

I would argue that today, in India, amidst the hoopla and hype of the economic boom, the poor are more invisible than ever before, and the dangers of ignoring them are greater than ever before: The proof of this is in the resurgent Naxalite, armed rebellion in the heart of India, where communist guerrillas, fighting in the name of the poor, are waging a brutal war against the state.

Who are some of the writers -- Indian and non Indian -- who have influenced you the most? What have you taken from them?

I've mentioned three great black American writers of World War II and the immediate post war era, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, who have influenced this book immensely. I admire R K Narayan a lot, especially his novel The Guide. His writing is wonderfully comic and acerbic at the same time.

The writer Paul Theroux once told me that the biggest fear he had as a writer was not that he could run short of ideas but that he may end up writing a boring book. What is your biggest fear?

No one who is alive to the poetry, anger, and humour of India is ever going to be in danger of writing a boring book. So I'm not concerned about that. My concerns in India are more mundane and pressing. I'm worried that there are going to be massive water cuts in Mumbai this summer, and I won't have water in my apartment.

If you had a magic wand, who would you choose to direct the film version of your book, and who would play the lead characters?

This is not a book that can be filmed easily. I have a friend in New York, a filmmaker named Ramin Bahrani, and I'd seek his advice if anyone ever came up with a proposal for this to be turned into a film.

Buy Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger on

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