As I indicated in this post, I enjoyed the book. Won’t get into the debate about whether or not it deserved one of the biggest literary prizes in the world, partly because such debates inevitably lead to some very tunnel-visioned and elitist definitions of Good Literature/High Literature, and that sort of thing bores me. Also, I can’t bring myself to take competitive prizes seriously as arbiters of anything. Given that the judging procedures are necessarily based on a combination of many whimsical factors (including, of course, politics, perceived topicality and the vastly differing tastes and perspectives of different jury members), you really can’t analyse them beyond a point.
Looking at The White Tiger on its own terms, independently of the Booker baggage, the novel’s achievement in my view was that it used accessible, fast-paced fiction to reflect on the many Indias and the many types of aspirations and frustrations they represent. I also thought it was more ironical and self-aware than it’s been given credit for. Anyway, here’s the Q&A with Adiga:
Did you consciously set out to write about an aspect of India that has been glossed over in the press (with the India Rising narratives, etc)? How did you fix on a character like Balram as your narrator?
Lots of people ask me this, and some assume this is so obvious they don't even ask me, but the answer is no. There was no conscious attempt to write a counter-narrative to India Shining. I can't imagine any good novel would come of such a polemical enterprise.
I returned to India in 2003 after many years abroad, and rediscovered India – or rather discovered India, since I had grown up in the south, in a prosperous part of a prosperous state (the coastal belt of Karnataka), and was now seeing Delhi and the Gangetic north for the first time. The fact about India that struck me most forcefully was this – that despite there being such an appalling (and growing) gulf between the rich and the poor, and the fact that the poor came into regular, close, and sometimes intimate contact with the rich, there was so little crime in India. Think of South Africa, or south America, or even the poorer parts of an American city – there is such a link between economic deprivation and social unrest. But why not in India?
Middle-class Indians think there is a lot of crime, but I would argue that this is not really true. If a housemaid steals a thousand rupees, it makes the papers. Visitors from South Africa are always amazed by the low levels of crime here. What keeps millions of poor Indians working in servile positions, and routinely exposed to temptation, so honest? How stable is such a system? Are there signs that it is creaking? And what would be the nature of a man, a servant, who would defy the system? These are the questions with which The White Tiger began and which are, I feel, at its heart. The exploration of these issues leads into the question of where the servants in Delhi come from – from the villages, from Bihar and UP – and how they live, how they are raised, and how they think.
Why the unusual framework of having Balram address letters to the Chinese Premier?
First, there is a real, historical hook to the narrative structure. Wen Jiabao did visit India in 2005 and I was listening to radio late at night when the news came on that he was going to visit Bangalore. It was said that he wanted to see and understand Bangalore's entrepreneurs.
Secondly, Indians, more than other people I know, understand themselves in comparison to other nations. The "other" used to be the west until recently. Now it is China, which is depicted as a kind of more efficient, evil, and successful version of India. It’s natural that Balram, who is very influenced by things around him – he calls himself a "sponge" – would have come to form certain ideas about China as well. He has a somewhat exaggerated conception of his importance – he loves listening to the radio talk about Castro or the American president – and it flatters his sense of importance to talk to the big man of China.
I should point out that these are not letters that he is writing – he is talking out aloud, as he lies down in his room and stares at the chandelier. He is just talking aloud.
There's a perception that narratives about the "other India" aren't fashionable these days. Do you think that perception is inaccurate?
I can't really comment on this – I live in a corner of Mumbai, and have no sense of the publishing world in general.
It’s a dark book, especially in the compromises Balram has to make in order to cross over to the "privileged" side. Is this a commentary on the direction in which the country is moving?
Actually, some reviewers feel that Balram's drive and energy suggest great things for India's future. New York magazine said something like, if Balram is India's future, then India is going to kick America's ass.
Look it's like this: in England, The White Tiger is seen by many as a pessimistic book on India's future, and in the United States it's seen as a very optimistic book on India's future. It depends on whether you believe that individuals succeed because of the existing political structures of the country or in spite of them – and the American view is probably the latter. I'm asking merely that people here be open to the idea that many abroad see this book as a hugely optimistic book on the future of the country.
P.S. NDTV asked me for quotes about the Booker win yesterday – specifically about the significance of a first-time writer’s novel “beating” the veteran Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Here’s my rambling, circular email response:
Personally I don't take competitive prizes like the Booker seriously – analysing their decisions is basically a fun exercise, nothing more. About the two books: I enjoyed them both a lot, on different levels, but I would find it hard to compare or “rank” them. The Ghosh is very much the work of an experienced, scholarly writer who combines fiction with indepth historical research, whereas the Adiga is a much lighter, faster-paced read with some of the inevitable awkwardness you’d expect from a first-time writer but also with insights into the class divide in modern India.
Topicality/fashionability probably has something to do with the Booker committee’s decision: India is very much in the news these days for all sorts of reasons, and The White Tiger provides a worm's-eye perspective of Indian society that runs counter to the "India Shining" narrative. A modern-India novel of this sort would probably be seen as more “relevant” than a historical (Sea of Poppies) set in the 19th century.
The other thing is that The White Tiger (which has a driver murdering his rich employer) acquired a higher profile when, shortly after its publication, the real-life Arushi Talwar murder case became a major talking point around the country. A couple of foreign publications did feature stories about discontentment among the Indian lower-class and mentioned The White Tiger in this context. That would certainly have aided the topicality perception and made the book seem prescient in some way.