‘Capturing’ Mumbai With Arvind Adiga
He took the literary world by storm with his debut novel, The White Tiger, that got him global recognition. On the eve of the release of his second novel, Last Man In Tower, Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga exchanges notes with Verve
The White Tiger set a benchmark for your subsequent works and your global reputation precedes every new offering.
If you live in India, then real success is defined for you by doing well in India. I am grateful for all those who read my books in England, America, and other countries. But everything I love is right here, in my homeland. It is very important for me to do well here.
Mumbai continues to remain your muse…. What is it about the city that inspires you?
I was a struggling journalist in Delhi, and I never made it as a writer until I moved to Mumbai – so it was this city that created me as a writer. I will always be grateful to the city of Mumbai, and to her wonderful people. Although I have lived in Bengaluru for the most of 2010, I now plan to buy a home in Mumbai and spend half the year here.
What are the advantages of writing neo-realist fiction?
When you start on a story, you have to consider the literary options ahead of you: magic realism, realism, naturalism and more. However, to capture life in Mumbai, a realist mode seems most appropriate.
How does your creative process work?
A painter once said: “When opportunity knocked, I was waiting.” Meaning that he had been working for years when inspiration came to him. Any creative activity involves a lot of work. I write best in the early mornings. So I try to wake up by 6 a.m., and I write from then on, for as long as I can. I am used to hard work, and the trick is usually to stop at a reasonable hour so that I can meet my friends and enjoy a social life too.
Does writing come easily to you or is it still a struggle, as you had once said?
It is both a struggle, and a great source of joy.
Writers tend to write in isolation…. Would you agree?
No, I think most writers who are productive tend to have some sort of family support. Male writers like V.S. Naipaul usually had a wife, or a supportive female figure, who was hidden and forgotten. I think it is very hard to work in complete isolation.
What book have you read recently that you would recommend?
I wish I had read Ramachandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India years and years ago. With its selections from the writings of Ram Manohar Lohia, Rajaji, Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore, it gives you the perfect foundation for a career as a writer. Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics is the great Benaras novel. Each time I read its opening pages, I wish I were back in Varanasi.
The transition from journalism to fiction….
This happened a long time ago! I have not had any job but have been a writer for many years now.
Do you think that your work as a journalist has any influence on the way you write fiction? For example, your earlier books have been split up into stories and letters, respectively?
I think I have gained in discipline as a novelist with the passage of time.
Literary influences for Last Man in Tower….
Professor U.R. Ananthamurthy’s great works – Samskara and Avasthe (both of which were written in Kannada but are available in English). Also the French writer Honore de Balzac’s novel Old Goriot.
You have written short stories and novels…. What form of writing would you say has been the most creatively satisfying?
The novel is the summa of creative writing – precisely because it cannot be defined easily. I’m afraid that
some Indian readers have been conditioned to thinking of the novel as something that must be very lyrical and boring. All the novelists I admire created works that were contemporary, edgy, raucous, and funny. You must want to read a novel; it must never be a chore.
The White Tiger was written in Balram’s voice. In Last Man In Tower, whose narrative tone have you adopted?
I have looked for ways to explore the voices of the different characters in the story.
What canvas are you exploring in Last Man In Tower?
My new novel is set in Mumbai, in the building in Vakola where I lived when I wrote The White Tiger. (I changed the name, but you can easily find it if you go to Santa Cruz East.) It is a story of how people are changing in India, for better or worse. I am not at all opposed, as some other writers are, to the ‘New India’. I grew up in Mangalore in the 1980s – I remember how humiliating life was for people in small towns in India then. We had to wait for weeks to get a confirmation for a seat on Indian Airlines, and months for a new car. There is so much more freedom and opportunity now: I only wish my mother were alive to see how life has improved in villages and towns. However, some changes – the growth of chauvinism, ultra-nationalism, a new aggressiveness, the damage we are doing to our environment – bother me. The most precious thing about India is our culture, in all senses of the word – our learning, our good manners, our respect for forests and trees, and our civility. What will it profit us to gain the world and lose our culture?
How did you – as the son of a surgeon – gain such an incisive analysis into the dark, murky layers of our society?
There is nothing dark or murky in this book. Why not let the readers decide for themselves? I am disturbed by some aspects of what is happening in India today – the spread of a kind of ultra-nationalism disturbs me. There is also a new hyper-masculinity that causes young men to behave badly. We will have many more young men than women in 10 years, because of our gender imbalance. I think this is one of the greatest problems facing India. My concern as a man, an Indian man, is how we cope with this imbalance in time before it wrecks the nation.
You have lived in Australia, America and also a large part in India. How have the different social milieu affected you?
I hope wherever I am to be influenced by what is best in that society, while retaining my essential Indianness. I am grateful for the fine education I received in New York and Oxford, and I hope that my work as a writer brings honour to my teachers in those countries too.
How has the Indian diaspora writing influenced you?
I read Amitav Ghosh in the 1990s when I lived in New York. He taught at Columbia University when I was a student there, and my friends and I went to the gym to spy on him as he ran and stretched. He has given joy to many Indians living here and abroad, and I can’t think of a better model for young Indian writers to emulate.
Is there a particular kind of readership that the book is aimed at?
I write for people who shop at Landmark and Crossword and all the bookstores in Mumbai and Bengaluru that I go to when I want to buy a book. Many of your readers have probably seen me at one of these stores. The liberalism and tolerance of Indian readers give me strength and courage to write what I want to.
Do you think Indian writing is capable of holding up a mirror to the ills of society?
I do not want to live anywhere but in India, and I think that the ills of society, while they exist, are not as great as the joys of living here. In 2010, I decided to visit all the districts of Karnataka, where I was raised. I was very upset to see how the state is being looted by corrupt politicians – how forests are being cut down and the environment is being destroyed. But I understand that it is for the journalists to report on this. My work is as a novelist, which is very different.
Why do you maintain such a low profile?
Writing takes up a lot of time, and requires seclusion. So I have to keep a low profile when I write!