Interview with the 2008 Man Booker Prize Laureate

The Indian Dream

Wednesday 19 November 2008, by Emmanuel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Balram tells the story of his life: how he left his native
village for Delhi, where he wants to succeed and make
all of his dreams come true… like killing his boss. In his
first book, which just won the prestigious Booker Prize,
Aravind Adiga brings to life the story of a poor man
looking for wealth.

With The White Tiger, the author, 33, depicts the India
of today and tomorrow. It is an energetic society full
of hope, one that is trying to
harness its booming economy,
manage its new rules and fix
its old social problems. On
the phone from his home in
Mumbai, the fifth Indian to win
the Booker Prize notes that he
wanted to give another version
of the Indian miracle: “The
economic boom that India has
seen over the past ten years is
phenomenal. It has completely
changed the country, and that
is a good thing. However, many
people have been left behind, a
fact that is too often ignored. A lot of the country has
not profited from the growth.”

It was during a trip to Pakistan for Time
Magazine in 2005 that Aravind Adiga
found the heart of his novel: the
master-servant relationship.
“I was surprised to see that
in Pakistan servants- and the
poor in general- are treated much
better than in India. Obviously Islam
is an important factor,” adds the former
journalist who traveled extensively in
Southern Asia for his work.

If the lot of many in India is more difficult, is the
caste system not to blame? Aravind Adiga holds
a more nuanced view, “The caste system is a lot
more elastic than people on the outside think. For me,
the differences amongst the social classes matters
more, and it is most noticeable in terms of access
to education, healthcare and clean water. My main
character moves from a world dominated by a caste
system to one dominated by class divisions.”

Balram’s transition mirrors the one India is currently
experiencing. The social and economic changes
there are massive- and they are not without tension.
“Before, the poor accepted their status, it was seen
as inevitable and part of the natural order. There was
no anger. Historically, for example, India’s crime rate
has been low. However with the rural exodus, the
mollifying of the castes and the weakening of the family
as a structure, resentment is rising. Now the poor are
constantly being told that they can succeed, that they
can become entrepreneurs. But they realize that they
don’t have the necessary tools, the tools that the middle
classes possess, to achieve their dreams. Education-
especially learning English-,
unaffordable healthcare costs,
and a lack of law and order- as
the police don’t bother to serve
and protect them- to name a
few.”

Aravind Adiga is part of the
Indian middle classes, those
who are benefiting the most
from the economic growth.
According to him, “the problem
is that the middle classes,
who are generally liberal,
democratic and tolerant, were
unable to integrate the poor. The only way the poor
can climb the ladder is through crime or political
skullduggery.”

Having his main character come from rather
modest origins, Aravind Adiga makes great
use of the language of the popular classes,
“It’s everywhere. It’s there, you just need
to listen. Without even knowing it, the
middle class has been conditioned
to stay away from the poor, to not
talk to them. We need to rid
ourselves of these taboos and
face reality.”

His character depicts the world
as divided between the “big bellies”
and “small bellies” This is more than just a
physical description though, “there are people
in India who are literally suffering from malnutrition,
while there are those in the middle classes who have
gorged themselves into becoming diabetics. But it is
also a reference to an oft-used metaphor in India, when
an Indian politician is said to eat a lot, it means that he
is corrupt!”

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (Free Press:2008)

Emmanuel Martinez is the editor-in-chief of
Alternatives le Journal.

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