Interview with Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger
Excerpted from printed Free Press interview (April 22, 2008)
Q: Who are some of your literary influences? Do you identify yourself particularly as an Indian writer?
A: It might make more sense to speak of incluences on this book, rather than on me. The influences on The White Tiger are three black American writers of the post-World War II era (in order) Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. The odd thing is that I haven't read them in years and years - I read Ellison's Invisible Man in 1995 or 1996, and have never returned to it - but now that the book is done, I can see how deeply it's indebted to them. As a writer, I don't feel tied to any one identity; I'm happy to draw influences from wherever they come.
Q: Could you describe your process as a writer? Was the transition from journalism to fiction difficult?
A: A first draft of TWT was written in 2005, and then put aside. I had given up on the book. Then, for reasons I don't fully understand myself, in December 2006, when I'd just returned to India after a long time abroad, I opened the draft and began rewriting it entirely. I wrote all day long from the next month and by early January 2007, I could see that I had a novel on my hands.
Q: From where did the inspiration for Balram Halwai come? How did you capture his voice?
A: Balram Halwai is a compound of various men I've met when traveling through India. I spend a lot of my time loitering about train stations or bus stands or servants' quarters and slums, and I listen and talk to people around me. There's a kind of continuous murmur or growl beneath middle-class life in India, and this noise never gets recorded. Balram is what you'd hear if one day the drains and faucets in your house started talking.
Q: In the novel, you write about the binary nature of Indian culture: the Light and the Darkness and how the caste system has been reduced to "Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies." Would you say more about why you think the country has come to be divided into these categories?
A: It's important that you see these classifications as Balram's, rather than as mine. I don't intend for the reader to identify with him very much at all. The past fifty years have seen tumultuous changes in India's society, and these changes - many of which are for the better - have overturned the traditional hierarchies, and the old securities of life. A lot of poorer Indians are left confused and perplexed by the new India that is being formed around them.
Q: Although Ashoke [Balram's master in the novel] has his redeeming characteristics, for the most part your portrayal of him, his family, and other members of the upper class is harsh. Is the corruption as rife as it seems, and will the nature of the upper class change or be preserved by the economic changes in India?
A: Just ask any Indian, rich or poor, about corruption here. It's bad. It shows no sign of going away, either. As to what lies in India's future - that's one of the hardest questions to in the world to answer.
Q: Your novel depicts an India that we don't often see. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view? Why does a Western audience need this alternative portrayal?
A: The main reason anyone would want to read this book, or so I hope, is because it entertains them and keeps them hooked to the end. I don't read anythign because I "have" to: I read what I enjoy reading, and I hope my readers will ind this book fun, too.
I simply wrote about the India that I know about, and the one that I live in. It's not "alternative India" for me! It's pretty mainstream, trust me.