All that you wanted to know about Aravind Adiga

There’s nothing like a nice little surprise. And a nice little surprise this week is a Madras-born, Mangalore-bred, Tamil-loving, Kannada-speaking former journalist who has studied at Oxford, Princeton and is all of 33 years of age walking away with the Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger.

But who exactly is Aravind Adiga?

He tells the Madras edition of The Times of India today:

“I was born in Madras, in a clinic on Poonamallee High Road, not far from where my grandfather, Mohan Rau, owned a nursing home and a mansion (the latter still stands). My mother, who grew up in Madras, spoke Tamil fluently. But the language spoken inside my house was Kannada, as my ancestors had come from Udupi, in Karnataka.

“When I was six, and before I could learn Tamil at school, my father decided to relocate to Mangalore.  My mother was never happy out of Chennai; she kept our house in Mangalore noisy with MGR films and Tamil songs; and her happiest moments came when she met someone with whom she could talk Tamil. For years, she (and I) clung on to a desperate hope that my father would go back to Chennai. My mother did make it back to Chennai, but not as she and I had hoped: in January 1990, she was admitted to the Cancer Institute in Chennai, and died there.”

But the media reaction to Adiga’s Booker has been relatively tepid, compared to the over-the-top reception to Arundhati Roy‘s Booker (The God of Small Things) and Salman Rushdie‘s (Midnight’s Children).

So, what exactly is this book that this “Kann-Adiga” has written that has fetched him this huge prize?

***

Were you expecting to win the Booker?

I thought I would be out partying in Soho by now (Sydney Morning Herald)

In a line, describe your book.

It’s the story of a man’s quest for freedom; and of the terrible cost of that freedom (Financial Times). It revolves around the great divide between those Indians who have made it and those who have not (Agence France Presse).

What was the idea?

It’s an attempt to catch the voice of the men you meet as you travel through India — the voice of the colossal underclass — without sentimentality or portraying them as mirthless, humourless weaklings as they are usually (New York Times). It was important for me to present someone from this colossal underclass, which is perhaps as big as 400 million, and to do so without sentimentality (The Daily Telegraph).

What was the inspiration?

What struck me when I went back to Delhi was all the poor people coming daily on the train from the villages. When they get off they are as completely lost as I was when I went to (Sydney) and New York and when I came to London. A person like me, my equivalent in India, treats the people who have got off the train quite badly and it reminded me of how I’ve been treated in the past (SMH).

Did your subjects have any reservations talking to you?

One of them spoke for sometime and became angry. He said, ‘You are listening to me and wasting my time. You will go back to Delhi and forget about me, this is why I don’t talk to people like you.’ So I remembered him and when I went back to Delhi I didn’t forget him. (The Australian)

Was it easy?

A book like this is as much an exercise in masochism as anything else. I am very much a part of the things I am attacking and it is not fun to write it necessarily (The Hindu).

How will winning the award change your life?

It won’t change much, because I live in Bombay, and life in Mumbai has a way of reminding you that writers are not particularly important. It won’t mean anything to my neighbours, they won’t know about this. Life will continue (The Telegraph, Calcutta).

Why did you dedicate the book to Delhi when you live in Bombay?

It’s a city that’s going to determine the future of India (The Hindu).

How does a novel like The White Tiger, which throws light on the “dark side of India” resonate with an India on the move?

There is a lot of triumphalist noise in India today. There is a sense of profound economic achievement and much of it is justified, but it is also important to listen to other noises. Something extraordinary is happening between the rich and the poor. Once, there was at least a common culture between rich and poor, but that has been eroded, and people have noted that (Booker media conference).

You studied literature at Columbia and then at Oxford. Why did you end up as a journalist?

It was a conscious choice to become a journalist. I went to Princeton for my PhD (but) I dropped out because I realised that if I was going to be a writer, I hadn’t seen much. I wanted to get out and see the world and not just geographically but also to be forced to talk to people I would not wish to talk to normally (The Australian).

What does it mean to be a bachelor in Bombay?

I describe myself as a ‘writer’, a category that doesn’t mean anything to the landlords of Bombay (The Guardian, London)

What’s your next novel?

India just teems with untold stories, and no one who is alive to the poetry, the anger and the intelligence of Indian society will ever run out of stories to write. I do want to write about people who haven’t been written about, and there’s a lot of them in India still. (AFP)

Photograph: Aravind Adiga in the 10th standard (courtesy Mid-Day)