Writers & Company

Aravind Adiga's books tackle clashes of the classes in Indian society

Aravind Adiga stunned the literary world when his first novel, The White Tiger, won the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
Aravind Adiga is a prize-winning novelist from India. (Supplied)

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of England's Man Booker Prize, Writers & Company is airing a special series of Booker Prize winners from our archives all summer. You can see all the episodes here.

In 2008, Indian novelist Aravind Adiga stunned the literary world when he won the Man Booker Prize for his very first novel, The White Tiger, at just 33 years old. Written with verve, wit and intelligence, The White Tiger is a fiercely irreverent take on 21st-century India, following the story of a Bangalore servant — a driver — who rebels against the wretched fate of his social class. The novel went on to sell well over a million copies, becoming a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Adiga was born in Chennai, India in 1974. Before turning to fiction he was a correspondent for Time magazine, working first in New York and later from New Delhi. He now lives in Mumbai, and prefers not to leave India. His subsequent books are Between the AssassinationsLast Man in Tower and Selection Day.

Aravind Adiga spoke to Eleanor Wachtel on a rare visit to Toronto in 2009.

Coming home

"In India, most middle-class people have servants. They have someone to drive their car. A lady will come in to sweep your floor and then to mop it. People will also have a servant to do the cooking perhaps and someone to take care of the children. Life is structured so you have to have these servants.

"When I first moved back, it was very difficult for me. I couldn't cope with the idea of having a servant so I did everything myself and this made me kind of stick out. Through sheer incompetence and not fitting in, I lived not as a middle-class person should. I was often doing things that a much poorer man would do and I got to see life from a very different perspective. The White Tiger and Between the Assassinations were born out of that clash between my native middle-class background and the new kind of life I had."

Education in India

"India is a country of paradoxes. While it has one of the world's most sophisticated outsourcing technology industries, nearly a third of India's population is still illiterate. In addition to those who cannot read or write, there is a large pool of people who have had some degree of schooling, who are functionally literate in the regional language and who may even know a little bit of English — these people are neither schooled, nor unschooled. I kept meeting this kind of character when I travelled. The central character of my book The White Tiger fascinated me because this person is sort of half-modern and half-antique; he can startle you alternately with how much he does not know about the world and how much he does know about the world. 

"It is very heartbreaking when you travel through India to meet numerous men who were taken out of schooling because their family needed them to join the workforce. Most of them remember the day quite vividly. The description of how my narrator gets taken out of school by his brother is based on what a man told me. He was taken straight from school to the neighbouring tea shop by his brother without explaining what was going on."

Bucking literary stereotypes

"It tends to be a stereotype in Indian literature or Indian cinema that the poor are either absent entirely or, if they're present, they're present as sentimental stock figures — weak, helpless figures who need your protection as a middle class person. A sense of humour and the capacity for vice are privileges accorded only to the middle class in Indian literature by and large.

"One of the surprising things when you meet poor Indians is how wickedly funny they are and their sense of humour reminded me in some ways of black American humour. I knew that if I were going to write about one of these people I was meeting that he would have to be very funny, he'd have to have an edgy sense of humour and he'd have to be someone who has the capacity to do the wrong thing, because it's one of the traits by which we learn to respect people in literature. The capacity to do the wrong thing is very important before we think of someone as a full human being."

Aravind Adiga's comments have been edited and condensed.