Interview with Aravind Adiga

Posted by Goodreads on September 5, 2011
No mystic gurus, no charmed cobras, no Bollywood spectacle. Readers seeking an authentic portrayal of India turn to Aravind Adiga. His novels describe the modern India—poverty and corruption overlaying a seething economy and the radically changing social fabric of a rising superpower. Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger, followed an impoverished village boy on his journey from servant to entrepreneur to murderer; it won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. His new novel, Last Man in Tower, centers on life in a middle-class apartment building in a run-down neighborhood of Mumbai. When real estate developer Dharmen Shah asks residents to vacate for a princely sum, most promptly pack their bags. But one holdout remains, a retired schoolteacher named Masterji. The novel pits the ascetic yet self-righteous Masterji against the cutthroat but charismatic Dharmen Shah. Adiga spoke with Goodreads about the role of art in political discourse.

Goodreads: The White Tiger follows one central character from the Indian interior through the booming metropolis of Delhi and eventually to the southern part of India. Last Man in Tower follows a larger cast of characters but really narrows the scope of the setting down to, for the most part, one apartment building in Mumbai. Was that a conscious reaction to the breadth of your first book?

Aravind Adiga: I don't think it was a conscious decision, but there's no question that as a writer you want to keep trying new things and testing yourself with new kinds of narratives. It comes instinctively as you start a new book that you're hoping to do something very different from the one you just finished. Also, the format of the new novel is dictated by my own experience in Mumbai: The apartment building was based on the one that I lived in. So, it wasn't a conscious decision, but it was an inevitable one.

GR: Tell us more about your inspiration for the apartment building, Vishram Society, and its diverse mix of inhabitants.

AA: The physical structure and appearance of the building, the construction, the conditions of life in the building—for instance, the building only has water early in the mornings and evenings, a few hours a day—all are inspired from my own experiences of living in a similar building, an old building in the neighborhood of Vakola, which is near the airport. The people who live in it are by and large typical. They are not exact portraits in real life, but they are inspired by people who lived in the building and who live in buildings like that throughout Mumbai. The milieu of Last Man in Tower is that of the middle to lower class in Mumbai, because Mumbai has a very strong middle-class component.

GR: One fascinating character actually doesn't live in the building—Dharmen Shah, the developer. What does this character mean to you? What part of modern India does he represent?

AA: The city of Mumbai has suffered from serious misrule and from bad governance for several decades now. This is widely accepted. Mumbai was once the business capital and the most glamorous city in India. This has not been the case for a while because of bad civic planning, massive congestion of traffic—people even have trouble getting clean water to their homes. There's a growing sense of frustration with the government, a feeling that the only reason Mumbai is progressing is because of private individuals and what they do to the city. Dharmen is an ambiguous figure. He represents a lot of what is going wrong with the city: There is a lot of uncontrolled construction, a lot of buildings come up in unscrupulous ways. On one hand, [these builders] can be ruthless and break laws; on the other hand, sometimes they seem to be the only ones getting anything done in Mumbai. For me, Dharmen is an ambiguous figure, and the conflict between him and the teacher in the building is meant to be nuanced, not one in which I hope the readers will find an easy side to pick.

GR: Do you consider Dharmen to be a villain? At first glance, he's positioned against Masterji, but they are both flawed men. How do you keep these characters three-dimensional and keep the reader moving side to side?

AA: I meant for the book to work through a structural irony in that in India, especially Bombay, the figure of the builder, you assume that he's going to be the bad guy. So you can start off with that premise and play with it and then make the reader wonder, Who represents the problem here? Is it just the man saying "no" regardless of what his neighbors want, who assumes he is right in everything, or is it the unscrupulous builder? The stories are common in Bombay of people trying to get out of their homes once a developer makes an offer on that building. One of the things I wanted to do in this novel was incorporate an element of structural irony that violence does come from an unexpected source, not directly from the expected villain but from people who might consider themselves victims in that situation normally.

GR: Do you feel like your fiction has had a positive impact on Indian society? For instance, Anna Hazare is leading a very public international fight against government corruption, something that's been touched on in both of your books. Can your work take some of the credit for that?

AA: No, not at all. I think what is happening here is much greater. I don't think as a novelist that's been my aim. A novel as a piece of work has to be ambiguous, and a reader's response to it should be an ambivalent one, uncertain of exactly what the book is saying, because if the book is clear in what it is saying it ceases to be a good work of art and instead becomes a political statement. India is a country of corruption, but it also has a sense of idealism. I admire people who fight corruption, but I'm also concerned that they are too strident or too convinced that their solution is the correct one. That can end up as a danger. As an artist, my job is to dramatize what's happening without indicating that there is any obvious answer to what's going on around me.

GR: Goodreads member Jim Thornton asks whether your intended audience is domestic "or is he focusing on an end audience of Westerners?"

AA: Your ideal reader has to be the people living in the community you come from. I live in Mumbai. I live in India. I have been lucky in that my books have had a wide audience here. I hope that for people who have lived in India my books will have an added layer of depth. As a writer, you hope your books will reach discerning readers wherever they may be. I do read books written from other countries. I read books by Orhan Pamuk, for instance, and I've never been to Turkey. I'm sure I'm missing something from these books, but they also speak to me quite powerfully. I've read books about places I've never been and probably will never visit. You hope as a writer to speak most clearly and directly to the people in your own community, but to be read by people in other countries as well.

GR: Goodreads member Anant asks, "[Adiga] has been quoted as saying that through his work he wants to showcase the social injustices in Indian society. Does he have any plans to bring out the good things happening in India as well through this work? (A novel based around the rise of the economy or the IT revolution or the big consumer market?)"

AA: It's a good question, but if my books were just about the negative aspects of India, they would not find an audience here in India. I do think the readership in India is eager for lots of different types of books. It's a function of a society with increased work; people have an increased degree of self-confidence. The readers are not looking to be pandered to; they're not looking for works that flatter them. In fact, they reject such works quite vehemently. They are looking to be challenged. They're looking to be provoked and entertained. If my books seem one-sided to them they won't buy them, and that would be the end of my life as a writer. India has changed so much and is now an aggressive, self-confident, militarily powerful country. Readers are looking for books that will explore India's transformation and rise and not condescend. One of my great sources of confidence is the tolerant and liberal nature of my readership in India here.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AA: The only thing unusual about my writing days is how conventional they are. I get up at 6 a.m.; it's pretty much the same as when I used to get up to go to work, except I'm now working at home. I do most of my writing in the morning and late at night. The tricky thing is filing in the middle of the day when I can't write. There is no secret to writing. It's discipline and sticking to it. I can't think of anything that's unusual about my writing habits, except the best thing I heard from a fellow writer was that he would change where he was when he was writing every two hours. He would change the location, and I think that makes sense not to spend more than a couple hours in a particular place because changing your venue for where you are writing can give you new insights.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing?

AA: There are many. I keep reading books from new authors. When I was a boy I read a book from an Indian author, R.K. Narayan. I still think he's the best Indian writer in English. His most famous novel is The Guide. He's had a constant influence on me. While I've read many authors, the ones who have influenced me the most have been when I was about eight years old. I did read a lot of Saul Bellow when I was in the United States, and he's someone I admire very much because he seems like the last link in the great European tradition of novel writing. He's a completely contemporary writer, but he's also drawing directly from people like Balzac and Dostoyevsky in a way that is no longer possible. He seems to be the greatest English writer after the Second World War. I don't think of him as an influence, I just try to read as much as I can. What's striking about him is how many rules of novel writing of English prose he keeps breaking because he's a genius and can break all the rules. He can get away with it because he is so original. I think his work will always be read. It's been some time since I left the U.S., and when I read Bellow it reminds me of the time when I was living in New York.

GR: If you were to recommend one book by Saul Bellow, what would it be?

AA: I'd recommend Seize the Day any day. I think Seize the Day is an unusual one for him in that it came after his breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March. It's so unlike how many writers of his time, like Hemingway, wrote. He was so funny. Seize the Day is a very classical novel. It's very severe, very short. It's a melancholy work about a man walking the streets of New York as his life unfolds. It's one of the greatest works I've read. I keep rereading it.

GR: What are you reading now?

AA: I just reviewed a book called The Essential Tagore published by Harvard University Press. It's an anthology of writing from India's most famous poet: a collection of his poetry, travel writing, essays, short stories, and his novels. It's wonderful. I review occasionally mainly to ensure I keep reading new novels. I also recently reread Domby and Son, which is not one of my favorite novels. But I keep reading it in hopes that I will. One thing about reading is, sometimes you keep reading books that you don't really like in hopes that there is something you will like when you read it ten years later.

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Tiago (new)

Tiago Diogo Interview with Aravind Adiga

message 2: by Aban (Aby) (new)

Aban (Aby) What an interesting interview! I feel I learned more about Adiga, his feelings about India, and his attitude towards his craft. I was grateful for the books he recommended. I thoroughly enjoyed "The White Tiger" and look forward to reading his latest book.

message 3: by Paul (new)

Paul Excellent interview which revealed a lot about both Adiga and his motervations.
I look forward to reading this book as well.

message 4: by Hemant (new)

Hemant Rao very illuminating.It throws more light on " the last man in the tower".

message 5: by Saurabh (new)

Saurabh Shah This intro is quite insulting to Indian readers:" No mystic gurus, no charmed cobras, no Bollywood spectacle. Some may not recognize Aravind Adiga's India."

It shows the warped mentality of the interviewer. A prestigious and highly respected site such as "Goodreads" should take out, apologize and refrain from such comments in future.

message 6: by Lorraine (new)

Lorraine I enjoyed the interview tremendously especially the question regarding his thoughts on whether artists' works should make political statements. I agree entirely with what Adiga says about letting the reader make up their own mind.

message 7: by Jean (new)

Jean Dupont I was very happy to learn that my favourite indian author is the one who influenced Adiga the most.

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