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Adiga's India, Through A Literary Kaleidoscope

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Adiga's India, Through A Literary Kaleidoscope

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Adiga's India, Through A Literary Kaleidoscope

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Aravind Adiga won the prestigious Booker Prize in United Kingdom with his debut novel, "The White Tiger." He's followed up with a book of stories. They're all set in Kittur, a seaside town in Southern India, about 100,000 people, a diverse and dreamy place that drowses while much of India bustles. Kittur seems to snooze, suspended in that time between 1984 and 1991, between the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and then her son and successor, Rajiv.

Aravind Adiga, who has also been a correspondent for Time magazine, joins us now from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company in Sydney.

Mr. Adiga, thanks for joining us.

Mr. ARAVIND ADIGA (Author, "The White Tiger"): Thank you for having me on again.

SIMON: So - you won the Booker. How's your life changed?

Mr. ADIGA: Well, it's a tremendous honor to win the Booker. But in many ways nothing much changes for a writer's life, because I'm still stuck in my flat in my apartment in Mumbai trying to write. And let me tell you, it doesn't get any easier to write just because you've won the Booker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, let me draw you out on the perhaps it gets a bit harder. I mean is it - and I don't for a moment mean to suggest anything that will stay in your mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But when you put down a word or a sentence now, do you think that's not quite Booker material?

Mr. ADIGA: No. Actually, what happens is when you win the Booker Prize, your book and your life suddenly becomes the target of critics. And if anything, the controversy and the publicity that are inevitable after such a victory act as an impetus to write. The only reason to write is to get back at all the people who've said such incredibly idiotic things about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADIGA: If not for all the controversy, which has been intense in India, and other places. I don't think I'd be writing now, because I'm quite lazy by nature and I'd be quite happy to take a three-year holiday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, all right. One foot after another then with that kind of motivation. Now, do I have it right, these stories were written before "The White Tiger?"

Mr. ADIGA: Yes, essentially. They were written around 2006, the first draft of the stories, which was around the same time as the first draft of "The White Tiger."

SIMON: We meet a little girl name Soumya, who begs on the street for money to support her father's drug habit because she loves him.

Mr. ADIGA: Yes. This, you know, one of the things I wanted to do in these stories was just to tell the stories of people in India and to give you a sense of the cross-section of life in an Indian town.

One of the things that did surprise me when I went back to India as a reporter and I got to travel and I speak to people was, you know, finding out about a drug problem which is very prevalent among working class Indians now. There is a drug problem among rich Indians, which tends to be of expensive drugs like Ecstasy, for instance.

But there has for a long time been a parallel problem among poorer Indians, working class Indians. And you see this if you travel around Delhi or Bombay. And if you're a tourist, if you leave your hotel and walk about in the evenings you will find, huddled by the sides of the streets, you will find men who are sitting alone and seem to be smoking something.

These men are smoking cheaper versions of drugs that are quite freely available in the Indian street, because of the proximity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are major drug processing and exporting centers. So one of the vignettes deals with a small girl and just following her about as she goes about taking care of her brother and running an errand for her father. It's unfortunately a very tragic errand she has to run.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to get you to talk about the member of the Marxist Maoist Party of India. Let the fact that he's proudly an ideologue not distract him from falling in love.

Mr. ADIGA: This is the final vignette in the collection, and for me this is the most personal story in many ways. You know, when you're a boy in India, you are constantly assaulted by large numbers of uncles and aunts who turn up at your house and you're expected to be nice to them.

When I was a boy in a town called Mangalam(ph) in the South of India, which forms the basis for this fictional town, Kittur, there was one uncle and only one who was not very welcome in my house. And this man I later discovered had been a member of a radical communist faction.

India had, like China, you know, has a long history of communism, but in India the communists never won, the radical communists. They were defeated because India has a liberal parliamentary system which resisted communism. I wanted to do a story about a communist and the tensions he would face in India, because this uncle of mine, who was a radical communist, also wants to be a writer.

I later did some work and found out something about him. He wanted to be a writer and a communist. And he had always felt these two impulses clashed, because being a communist, being an idealist, asks you to see the best in human beings. And being a writer often asks you to see the worst in them.

But this final story of the idealistic communist who has a crisis late in his life, is also the story of the India of the 1980s, which were where the old socialist system was finally cracking up and something new, which is the new capitalist India was on its way.

SIMON: I hope this doesn't sound patronizing. But for those of us who love India, that's part of its appeal. Although I must say, well, as my wife, who's French, will put it, she says that the France is the best place in the world to be a communist because you can be a communist and not actually have to live under it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADIGA: Well, to some extent that's true of India as well. We have various shades of communism in India. There are the communists who have learned to work with the parliamentary system and are in power in places, have worked through elections. And then there are those communists who reject parliamentary democracy entirely. But one of the great things about India historically is that it has been a place where people who are upset with the system have had a chance to speak out because it has been a liberal democracy and it's given room for dissent.

The thing about the books I write, "The White Tiger" or this book, "Between the Assassinations", is I don't think they could get published in any of the countries around India because those are not free countries. India is a liberal…

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ADIGA: …country which allows room for dissent, which is why it thrives. And this is something I think outsiders miss. A lot of countries in the world from Asia you never hear about, or you tend to get rosy pictures. And then one day you hear the country has collapsed in civil war. And you wonder how this happens. A country from which you're constantly getting news, and even if that news is not always great, is a free country and a country that will prosper and survive and it's fundamentally a stronger country. And that's India's story.

SIMON: You still - you deploy your journalistic skills in the service of literature, your novels?

Mr. ADIGA: Journalism is a way of gathering material for the fiction I would like to write. But fundamentally the skills are antithetical, I think, of being a journalist and of being a writer because the style of writing involved as a journalist is completely different. You know, you want things that are transparent, that are easy to understand. You want a style that can communicate clearly, whereas as a writer - as a writer of fiction, you often want a style that is ambiguous, that is open-ended. So journalism helps to some extent because, you know, being a writer means being in a room and typing away and kind of being self-absorbed, to some extent, and being a journalist forces you to leave your room and go out and see the world.

SIMON: So people who read your novels for some sort of prescription, that's not where they'll find it?

Mr. ADIGA: No, I don't think so. What you want to do as a novelist is to raise questions rather than give answers. Because what you really want as a writer, as a writer of fiction, is to be taken seriously and to be to be read and to be debated. And if you make the message clear, as it were, you fail in this because then people think they know what you're book is about, and they don't have to talk about it once it's done.

SIMON: Mr. Adiga, thanks so much.

Mr. ADIGA: Well, thank you again for having me on.

SIMON: Aravind Adiga. His new book is "Between the Assassinations." And you can read an excerpt from his book on our Web site - forgive me - npr.org.

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