Curious case of Aravind Adiga as a famous literary recluse: Booker-winning author is anomaly in publishing world
In an inversion of the mantra that marketing is a necessary evil, the bane of an author’s existence that ultimately has its reward, Adiga refuses to do too much publicity around his books, often to the chagrin of his publishers.
Aravind Adiga, the Booker Prize-winning author of The White Tiger (2008), has always struck me as India’s most famous literary recluse, an anomaly in the modern publishing world where the order of the day seems to be: Publicise or be damned. A self-avowed misfit, he is not a fixture at literary festivals and his public appearances and interviews in the media, especially in India, are few and far between. In an age when the writers are wont to taking the cloak of performers and clubbing themselves with various ‘camps’, Adiga forges — and walks — a lonely path. Like Thomas Pynchon and JD Salinger, his American prototypes, the 45-year-old author shies away from self-promotion. In an inversion of the mantra that marketing is a necessary evil, the bane of an author’s existence that ultimately has its reward, he refuses to do too much publicity around his books, often to the chagrin of his publishers.
Last year, when his latest novel, Amnesty (Picador/Pan Macmillan India), the story of an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant in Sydney, had come out, we had connected for an interview for The Indian Express, where I was working then. His novel was due to release on 18 February. On 20 January, he wrote that he had injured his foot in an accident in Bangalore (he’d not call it Bengaluru). Though his foot had to be operated upon, he was hoping to be home soon. He seemed to remember what I had told him 11 years ago during an interview for The Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle before The White Tiger had won the Booker Prize. Incidentally, Adiga had been in the fray for the prize, along with two of his literary heroes, Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence) and Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies); Adiga, at 33, had emerged as the youngest on the shortlist of six, which included Ghosh — the heavyweight Rushdie had not made the cut. It was a defining moment for Indian writing in English; the mantle seemed to be falling on the Young Turks as only two years ago, Kiran Desai had won the prize for The Inheritance of Loss. “Eleven years ago, you told me that readers in India will always want to read my work. We’ll find out now the truth of that remark with a book not set in India,” Adiga wrote.
As it turned out, the interview around Amnesty never happened. Perhaps Adiga, presumably, had decided not to break the self-enforced norm by restraining the urge to put himself out there — de rigueur for any author in the prelude to the release of a new book — and by choosing to stay fiercely protective of his private space, retreating into his writing carapace where he crafts his confrontational and disturbing neo-realist stories. In the days that followed, marked with the mayhem caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown that resulted into mass suffering of the migrants, I kept thinking of Amnesty, which brings noir to the immigrant narrative. Its protagonist, Dhananjay Rajaratnam or Danny, the Sri Lankan illegal migrant, tries hard to carve out a new identity as a house cleaner and create a new world for himself in Sydney, where he lives invisibly out of a grocery store. The novel, which unfolds over a single day, shows how Danny deals with a moral dilemma: must he report a murderer, about whom he holds vital information, to the police and risk deportation or let the killer go unpunished?
American-Iranian filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s film adaptation of The White Tiger, which released on Netflix on 22 January, brought me back to the world of Adiga’s fiction. Adiga, as his fans would vouch, may have earned his stripes as a writer with The White Tiger, but it’s with his later novels that he seems to have come into his own. In these novels, the canvas is wider and the cast of characters bigger, reflecting his tighter control over the form. It has been fascinating to see him getting better and better with every book that he has written so far: four novels — the other two are Last Man in Tower (2011) and Selection Day (2016) — and a collection of interlinked short stories, Between the Assassinations (2008). The collection was published after the Booker Prize vaulted him to acclaim, but features stories in the same continuum as The White Tiger — stories of a child beggar, a bus conductor, a despairing teacher and a journalist privy to the truth, set in the fictional town of Kittur, on the lines of Faulkner’s Jefferson or RK Narayan’s Malgudi. Incidentally, Narayan has been a huge influence on Adiga, along with Naipaul. It’s something that shows in his recent works. “Adiga is a startlingly fine observer, and a complicator, in the manner of VS Naipaul,” Dwight Garner wrote in her review of Amnesty in The New York Times.
Adiga’s literature is the literature of darkness and defeat, of alienation and isolation, of imprisonment and escape.
In a 2017 interview to Stephen Moss for The Guardian, Adiga, who studied English literature at Columbia University and Magdalen College at Oxford, shared how his earliest passion was 19th-century French literature, particularly Émile Zola’s “literature of defeat” that spoke to him as young man from a country that had spent “centuries being defeated”. Maupassant, the master of short fiction revolving around the lives of the lower and middle classes, has been another childhood influence. As a fiction writer, Adiga’s concerns are deprivation and injustice, flaws and failures — moral, social and political. Almost all of his novels explore the financial, emotional and psychological entrapments of people struggling to rise above the constraints of their condition and emerge from the bars, self-made or enforced by others, for something life-altering. Like The White Tiger, Selection Day¸ a critique of the quixotic nature of cricket as a spearhead of capitalism, is essentially the story of ambition and upward social mobility. It outlines the contours of poverty and privilege, aspiration and opportunity in the era of “post-capitalist decadence”. In Last Man in Tower, the story of a lone man fighting the real estate sharks from a tower of Vishram Society — “anchored like a dreadnought of middle-class respectability, ready to fire on anyone who might impugn the pucca quality of its inhabitants” — on the “toenail of Santa Cruz” called Vakola in Mumbai, the darkness at the heart of the novel is the darkness that we see ourselves staring at as a society today, especially with regard to the city spaces we inhabit. So, in a sense, reading Adiga’s novels become an exercise in taking a deep look at ourselves — at our social structures and polity, our failures and inequity, the chains that bind us and our collective quests for release, and shots at freedom and glory.
The aspirations of Dharmen Shah, the ruthless property developer in Last Man in Tower, The White Tiger’s Balram Halwai and Selection Day’s brothers, Manju and Radha Kumar, are fundamentally similar. Caught as they are in the conflicts and contradictions unleashed by the economic liberalisation in India, their destinies are conjoined. Amnesty, on the other hand, is about choices and crossroads and helps us understand the complexity of the power play between Sydney’s migrants, as well as the duality that marks the city: idealism and corruption flowing side by side like “parallel streams of sewage”. One of the things that strikes me as a reader of Adiga’s works is the ease and felicity with which he writes about people from a cross-section of society. As a novelist, he has this enormous ability to navigate the minds of characters from bewilderingly different strata. In a 2009 interview to Lee Thomas for Fiction Writers Review, after the release of Between the Assassinations, he said: “Finding that most Indian fiction told the stories only of a particular kind of person — upper-class, upper-caste, educated (and often expatriate) — I wanted to tell the story of an entire Indian town: every class, caste, and religion. An entire cross-section of an Indian town — Muslim, Christian, Hindu, upper-caste, lower-caste, rich and poor — appear in these stories.”
He has continued to do this in his novels after The White Tiger. His stories are informed by his experiences and travels across the country and around the world. “They are the stories of a fallen and alienated middle-class boy,” he told Thomas.
Born in Madras (now Chennai) to Dr K Madhava Adiga and Usha Mohan Rau, Adiga grew up in Mangalore (Karnataka) where he completed his schooling from Canara High School and St Aloysius High School. After the death of his mother, who died of cancer when he was 15, his father, a surgeon, emigrated to Australia where Adiga completed his schooling at James Ruse Agricultural High School. His brother, Anand Adiga, five years older to him, headed for the US, where he is a banker. Adiga, who wanted to be a writer, chose the journalism route. He started as a financial journalist intern at the Financial Times, where he covered stock market and investment protocols, and, famously, interviewed former US President Donald Trump. The genesis of The White Tiger lies in his days in journalism when he was the South Asia correspondent for Time magazine between 2003 and 2006, and lived in New Delhi. After his stint with Time, he became a freelancer and shifted to Mumbai. And, then, came The White Tiger, followed by the Booker acclaim.
Indian writers of a previous generation tended to relocate to London or New York, but Adiga chose to base himself in India — first in Mumbai (Santa Cruz) and then Bengaluru, where there has been a “great unleashing of entrepreneurial energy” which he taps in The White Tiger, which blends the “darkness of Bihar with the brightness of Bangalore,” as his uncle, Dr Raghuveer Adiga, an orthopaedic surgeon at Fr Muller Hospital in Mangalore, termed it after Adiga won the Booker. Explaining why he chose to settle in India, Adiga told Moss that it was likely because he was a “bad exile”. Citing a line from Naipaul — “the truth about India is not what you think, but what they are living” — he said: “I have to be in India to be writing about India.”
Adiga had conceived The White Tiger, which was published in the middle of the global recession of 2007-2008, as a critique of the state of things in the country and as an “attack on a rotten political system”. It was a “thought experiment” and not meant to be “verisimilitude of a picture of India,” he told David Godwin at The Hindu Lit for Life in 2014. He also told Godwin how he was fascinated by the idea of an alternative history of India, a history that considers the violent events, like the Bombay Naval mutiny of 1946 — on which actor Utpal Dutt, who was a Naxalite in his younger days, has written a play which Adiga happened to have read in his childhood days — as the proximate reason for the departure of the British from India, and not the non-violence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. The psychoanalysis of Sudhir Kakar, whom Adiga met in 2005, was also a major influence. Kakar, in some of his essays, explores the transformations that happen in the stories of urban migration. There were other influences, too, notably three black American writers of the post-World War II era — Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright.
The White Tiger and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a loose adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A (2005), were both pilloried by the Indian elite, who reacted to both with hostility and, what Adiga termed as “naked fury”, which, he said, only proved to him “the fundamental accuracy” of both works. Adiga kept insisting in several interviews around then that fiction’s role was to entertain and disturb. He loathed the characterisation of the novel as an exposé of the ‘underbelly’ of the economic boom. It was a novel, he had told me, and not a polemic. “It is not a social or political document, but a work of literature, meant to entertain and provoke,” he had said. If The White Tiger worked, it was largely due to the fact that it was a novel with a sense of humour, irony and paradox. At one point in the novel, Balram Halwai, in his letter to the visiting Chinese President, writes how it “pays to play both ways” — the Indian entrepreneur has to be “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere at the same time.” His tone throughout the novel is acerbic and unsparing. At some other point, he writes: “One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing.” As a novelist, Adiga argued, he was trying to “dramatise and highlight” a situation. In Amnesty, he does the same — “dramatise the moral crisis at the centre of the story that is faced in various forms by immigrants around the world,” as he said in a statement recently after Bahrani announced that he will also adapt Amnesty for Netflix. Adiga has described Amnesty as his “most personal” novel. Interestingly, Bahrani and Adiga go a long way back. They were undergraduates together at Columbia and Adiga has dedicated his first two books to Bahrani, who has influenced him with his films focusing on the lives of the underdog. They include: Man Push Cart (2005), the story of a Pakistani-born cart vendor in Manhattan whose life changes after a chance meeting with a businessman, and Chop Shop (2007), the story of Alejandro, a street orphan struggling to make a better life for himself and his 16-year-old sister. Bahrani had read and edited several drafts of Selection Day over a period of five years. In the acknowledgement in Selection Day, which has been adapted into a Netflix series by Udayan Prasad and Karan Boolani, Adiga writes: “In the jungle of my life, he (Ramin) has been the white tiger — the only one who ever believed.” Adiga has said that Amnesty, too, “evolved” in the course of his discussions with Bahrani over many years.
The White Tiger is the story of the new India created by globalisation. Adiga is currently working on a novel on the new India again — this time round it’s the “new India” created by the right-wing nationalists. He is also believed to be working on a book based on his life in Mangalore. Writing, for Adiga, has been a source of excitement and mystery. He writes to make a “nuisance” of himself, he said in a recent interview. It will be interesting to see how he makes “a nuisance” of himself in his new books.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent culture journalist based in New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com
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