For once the Booker judges got it right! We’re all shouting for joy at University Book Store. I’ve read The White Tiger twice. It’s my favorite novel of 2008, and has just been announced as the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize.
The author is 34-year-old Aravind Adiga, a former correspondent in India for TIME Magazine. Born in southeastern India on the Bay of Bengal, he was raised partly in Australia and currently lives in Mumbai. The White Tiger is Adiga’s first novel, a word-perfect satirical delight, one of the best first novels in years. The writing is so natural and laugh-out-loud funny that the book zips along, a banquet of moral complexity that keeps the reader laughing and thinking long after it’s finished.
The book’s narrator, Balram Halwai, is a self-confessed murderer, a man who has killed his boss and wants to tell you why. Balram has lived a life of brutal poverty in a backward village in North India, and is now determined to succeed as a rich man’s driver in ruthless, crowded New Delhi. Balram likes to call himself an entrepreneur, which means he’s a hustler, and he hustles for a living, and he’s hustling you, the reader, as he tells his story. Adiga takes you inside Balram’s mind so that you grow to love him, and when he misbehaves you suffer and worry and sweat. You will never forget the murder scene.
Among Adiga’s many writing aces are two of my favorite elements of fiction, character comedy in the narration, and behind it all a simmering rage at human injustice.
His publisher, Simon and Schuster, recently encouraged me to ask Aravind Adiga a few questions at his home in India. He’s such a personal hero, I was thrilled for the chance. We exchanged emails:
NICK: Beneath the comic surface of The White Tiger is a genuine anger. That anger feels like it’s been earned. How much of Balram’s anger is your own?
ARAVIND ADIGA: This is a hard question to answer. The novel is written in “voice” – in Balram’s voice – and not in mine. Some of the things that he’s confused by or angry about are changes in India that I approve of; for instance, he is uncomfortable with (as many men like him are) the greater freedom that women have in today’s India. Some of the other things he’s unhappy about – like corruption – are easier for me to identify with. When talking to many men whom I met in India, I found a sense of rage, often suppressed for years and years, that would burst out when they finally met someone they could talk to. But their anger was not the anger of a liberal, middle-class man at a corrupt system; it was something more complex – a blend of values both liberal and reactionary – and I wanted to be true to what I’d heard. Balram’s anger is not an anger that the reader should participate in entirely – it can seem at times like the rage you might feel if you were in Balram’s place – but at other times you should feel troubled by it, certainly.
NICK: Balram is one of the most charming characters of the year, really and truly, his voice is a delight – a hustler who’s hustling the reader but not quite as well as he thinks he is. How did you put together such a complex, truly likeable guy, a victim and yet a murderer? Did you use bits and pieces of anyone you know?
ARAVIND ADIGA: Many of the Indians I met while I traveled through India blended into Balram; but the character is ultimately of my own invention. I wanted to depict someone from India’s underclass – which is perhaps 400 million strong – and which has largely missed out on the economic boom, and which remains invisible in most films and books coming out of India. My aim was to draw aspects from the people I’d met to create someone whom I see all around me in India, but never in its literature: someone whose moral character seems to change by the minute – trustworthy one minute, but untrustworthy the next – who would embody the moral contradictions of life in today’s India. I’m glad you point out that he is a hustler – which he is! – one of the frustrations of writing a book like this is that so many critics seem to think that Balram’s views are meant to be taken objectively!
NICK: The device of writing to the Chinese premier is a clever way of allowing Balram to open up to the reader, while at the same time providing a springboard for some telling comments on the India-China interface today. How did you come up with such a clever narrative technique?
ARAVIND ADIGA: He’s not actually writing; he’s talking out into the night, in his isolated room. He has to tell his story to someone, but he can’t ever do so because it’s a terrible story. Indians, traditionally, are stimulated into reflecting on their society and nation by the arrival of an outsider who asks questions; in the past, this outsider was the European or the American – today, it is the man from China, which is India’s alter-ego in so many ways. Indians today are absolutely obsessed with the Chinese, and keep comparing themselves to China out of a belief that the future of the world lies with India and China.
NICK: What are you currently involved doing in India? Are you working on another novel? Can you tell us anything about it?
ARAVIND ADIGA: I continue to be a journalist here. I quit my full-time job with TIME magazine some years ago, after working for them as a correspondent from 2003 to 2005. I still write for TIME occasionally, but also for British and Indian newspapers. I’ve been working on another book for some time now; I hope it’ll be completed soon.
So do we, Aravind Adiga! I’m not much of a one for young novelists, but let me tell you, this man is a standout. In The White Tiger, just released in paperback, he has written a superb little monologue that’s smart and sensitive both, with pathos and slapstick and real moral bite all rolled into a swift, economical tour de force. Do your reading group a favor. Give them a shot of pure literary glee.