Q&A: Aravind Adiga, winner of 2008 Man Booker Prize

By Brad Frenette, National Post
Published: June 10, 2009

In 2005, Indian author Aravind Adiga left behind a career in journalism to pursue his passion: writing fiction. Soon, he was immersed in writing not one, but two books. Three years later, he was feted as the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his novel The White Tiger.

The second book he wrote during that period is a connected series of short stories called Between The Assassinations, released this week in North America. The collection takes place in the fictional setting of Kittur, India, a multi-caste, multi-faith town where “the brightest minds and the poorest morals, the up-and-coming and the downtrodden” can be found.

Brad Frenette spoke to the 34-year old current Booker winner, in Toronto to take part in tonight’s “Word Voices in Fiction” reading.

Q: You wrote much of this book while also writing The White Tiger. Did the stories overlap at all, or influence each other?
A: Yes, to a considerable extent. The White Tiger grew out a couple of vignettes or stories that I had set down from Between The Assassinations. The two played off each other as I was writing them. I always had an idea for two related books on India which would be set on either side of the great divide in modern Indian history, which was 1991 when India opened up its socialist economy to the world. That created what’s called “The New India”, the India of rapid economic growth and great disparities of wealth, which is the India of The White Tiger. But I always wanted to set a book on the other side of the divide, the last years of the old India, which is Between The Assassinations. The two were created together, there was a lot of back and forth between them, and you’ll find similar situations to ones that happen in The White Tiger in this book, but with very different outcomes.

Q: Did these two different periods of time affect how the characters act within the two books?
A: Very much so. The reason is that our entire world – the world I lived in in India before ’91 – was closed off and smaller economically. There was less money around, less temptations. Fewer extremes. There was also less possibility. So there was both good and bad in a different way. And now there is much more excitement and also the possibility of greater crime, greater social unrest. So it’s not like the period before was just a prelude to what is happening now. In many ways it was an alternative. In a sense, characters then had different moral choices to what they have now. Between the Assassinations is not just a prelude, in a sense it is a different vision of India and in some ways it challenges the India that is presented in The White Tiger.

Q: Your two books, and recently Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, and before that Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance have all examined India’s poor. As India’s economy surges, is this the time to tell the tale of India’s poorest people?
A: I hasten to point out that this is not a trend. The vast majority of books written in India in English and in other languages now focus on the middle class and have done so for years. Rohinton Mistry’s book was written I think at least ten years ago, so it was a long time back. And when it came out it was unusual. It may seem that these books are linked, but they are not. Q&A was also written a few years ago, and The White Tiger was written at least a couple of years after Q&A, though I hadn’t read it or heard about it when I wrote The White Tiger. These books are anomalies, they are exceptions.
I wasn’t trying to make a point with The White Tiger. It just seemed that the most interesting story around me was the story of the people who were invisible in Indian cinema and literature today, which is the servants and the poor, who still make up the bulk of our country, even after all these years of economic growth. India’s economic growth has been spectacular, but it’s also been skewed and asymmetrical. A large percentage of the population has not benefited much from the boom. These people are being increasingly written out of our narrative. I wanted to write about one such invisible man. When I was in America as a student, I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which impressed me tremendously. And when I came back to India it struck me that the servants in a sense were invisible in today’s India in the way that African-Americans were in the 1940s and 1950s. The invisible people are the majority of the country and are increasingly invisible. It represents a problem for a country when a large percentage of its population  is missing from the stories it tells about itself. This is not good for the future of the country because your stories – your cinema and your novels – is how you talk about yourself as a nation – much more than your journalism.

Q: How has your background in journalism influenced your fiction?
A: Journalism is both a positive and a minus when you are trying to write works of fiction. I come from a fairly privileged middle-class background. Journalism has forced me to travel through India, both geographically and socially. Travel to new regions of the country, but also to meet and talk to people whom I wouldn’t have never met before.  Poorer people, and people of different religions and backgrounds. In that sense, it’s very good. However, the kind of writing you do in journalism is very different – the prose involved is so different. You need to write a simple strait-forward kind of prose when you are a journalist. When you are a writer, you are looking for a kind of writing that is ambiguous, more nuanced and perhaps darker. When I began writing Between the Assassinations, I quit my job at Time Magazine – I was a full time reporter for Time in India from 2003 to 2005 – and I did gather a lot of material that went into both The White Tiger and Between the Assassinations. But when I began the two books I quit my job because I knew that I needed some space from journalism to write these books. And it was a big gamble at the time and the people who knew me thought I was crazy to quit one of the best jobs in journalism in the country.

Q: One of the characters in Between the Assassinations dreams of becoming “an Indian Maupassant”. Is there a ring of you in that? What writers do you admire, or feel a kinship with?
A: Maupassant is a writer I admire very, very much. I did my Masters in English Literature at Oxford, and when I was there I read a lot of 19th century French writers – Balzac and Maupaussant especially. I admired them tremendously. They strike me as being very relevant to India today because they are dealing with a society that is dealing with rapid industrialization and rapid change and has a new powerful middle class: a new self-conscious bourgeoisie arising. And these conditions struck me as very resonant to what is happening in India today. The original idea for Between The Assassinations – of creating a cross-section, a social portrait of an entire town – is inspired both by Balzac and Maupaussant, who were very focused on capturing snapshots of the entire social spectrum of the France of their time.
Rohinton Mistry and his book A Fine Balance is also a book I admire very much. I read A Fine Balance in New York over ten years ago.
I do read a lot of Indian writing in English, but some of my biggest influences have come from around the world. I’m also influenced by American writers who I read when I was in New York, especially James Baldwin Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. They were writing in the 1940s and 50s and they were writing about the intersection of class and race and the idea of giving voice to people whose voice has not been heard in literature.

The White TigerQ: You’ve mentioned Indian writing in English a few times. What are your thoughts on non-English modern Indian novels?
A: The vast majority of writing in India is done in languages other than English. But here’s the fundamental problem: we have so many languages in India and most of them are inaccessible to anyone except a small linguistic group. For instance, I’m from the South of India and we don’t speak Hindi. It’s an alien language in the south – we have to learn it in school. It’s as alien as German, really. India was never really one unified country before the British came. The problem in the South, for instance, our resentment of Hindi is similar to the Catalan speakers resentment of Spanish in Spain. I have no access to a large percentage of literature written in India.  And this is true of just about every Indian – we can’t read most of the literature written by our neighbors, unless it is translated into English, which doesn’t happen much. So, in effect that writers who do reach a broad audience are the ones writing in English. Many middle class Indians do speak English as a first language. English is a neutral language in India. People across the country speak it.

Q: Is that how you view your audience – the English speaking middle class?
A: Yes, very much so. They are the people for whom I write. The White Tiger has been translated in other Indian languages now and will reach a wider audience. My primary audience is the Indian reader reading in English. That’s quite a massive audience now. It’s growing very fast. It’s a good one to be writing for.

Q: Winning an award like the Booker must come with its own pressures. Are there any circumstances around that time that you would change?
A: When you are nominated for a prize like this you start to lose control of a bit of your life. There’s not much you can do to change it. Any inconvenience that comes along with it is minor compared to the honor of being nominated for a Booker Prize. I’d gladly take being nominated again any day. It’s worth it. Trust me.

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