SCOTT SIMON, host:
A white tiger is rare. Balram Halwai was singled out as the white tiger of his village school in India, the young student who'd be given a proper education because he can read and write, but Balram's family has to pull him out of school to settle a debt. He becomes a driver for his town's wealthiest man and then really goes to school, learning how to commit petty crimes, grand larcenies, even murder.
He writes a letter to the premier of China when he hears that the premier is coming to Bangalore to learn about entrepreneurship. As Balram Halwai says our nation has no drinking water, electricity, sewage, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality. It does have entrepreneurs.
That letter is the basis for "The White Tiger," the new, highly acclaimed comic novel by Aravind Adiga, who joins us now from the studios of the BBC in Mumbai. Thank you so much for being with us.
Mr. ARAVIND ADIGA (Author, "The White Tiger): Thank you for having me on the show.
SIMON: Now you went to Columbia and Oxford, right?
Mr. ADIGA: That's correct. I was born in India, but I came to New York in '93. I did my bachelor's at Columbia, and then I went on a scholarship from Columbia to Oxford where I did my masters in English, and then I came back to New York, and I worked there for a while as a journalist.
SIMON: And did you begin to see your country differently when you returned after being overseas?
Mr. ADIGA: Well yes. I mean, that's - you know, that's the way this book was born because I grew up in India, and I left when I was 15, and I came back in 2003 to a different part of India. I had grown up in the south.
In India, we have a deep north rather than a deep south, and my work as a journalist took me to a new part of the country, the Ganges, which I'd never really seen before.
Two things surprised me. One was the new geography of India, the Ganges, but the second things was when I was in New York working, I kept hearing about how everything in India had changed, and the surprise was getting back and seeing how much had not changed. And that's what - you know, how this book began.
SIMON: You have a heart-piercing passage. Your protagonist is addressing the premier of China, and he says please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one, an India and an India of darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well-off, but the river brings darkness to India, the Black River, that's the Ganges.
Mr. ADIGA: This is one of the ironies you discover when you look at what is happening in India. The Ganges is historically the river of light, the holy of holies in Hindu civilization.
Well, unfortunately what's happened is that the Indians who live along the Ganges live in the poorest, the most violent and backward part of the country, and it's not just the poverty. It was also the crime, the domination by horribly corrupt criminal politicians in this part of India, which made me feel that the only way to describe it was the darkness. It's a kind of moral darkness, not just poverty. It was the violence, the gangsters and the criminals masquerading as democratic, elected politicians in the heart of India that really took me by surprise.
SIMON: Your character, Balram Halwai, has a rumination, if you please, the caste system in India, that he writes in this prolonged comic letter to the premier of China, and I want to get you to read from it, if I can.
Mr. ADIGA: Sure. See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo, a clean, well-kept, orderly zoo, everyone in his place, everyone happy. And then, thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the 15th of August, 1947, the day the British left, the cages had been let open, and the animals then attacked and ripped each other apart, and jungle law replaced zoo law.
Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up and grown big bellies. That was all that counted now, the size of your belly. It didn't matter whether you were a woman or a Muslim or an untouchable. In the old days, there were 1,000 castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes, men with big bellies and men with small bellies, and only two destinies, eat or get eaten up.
SIMON: And Balram Halwai determined that he's going to be one of the eaters, I think that's safe to say.
Mr. ADIGA: Yes, he's that - what he has become is he's left his village, he's come to the city. He's become the driver of a rich man. When he's in the village as a boy, he imagines this is the best life he can get. He's going to become someone's servant. He's going to get a nice uniform. He's going to have a regular meal. He's going to get a monthly salary, and this is it. This is going to be life.
When he actually gets to the city, he realizes this is not everything it's cut out to be and there's so much more here in the city than he ever imagined. There's money, there's shopping malls, there's women, and if he's not part of that world, he feels he's one of those who are getting eaten up, and he wants to become part of that world, and there's only one to become that, to eat his master up, which is what he does.
SIMON: He becomes a successful businessman, an entrepreneur. I wonder, without giving away a plot point, if you can tell us how he managed the important business plan he came up with to build his company in Bangalore, which amounts to a taxi service.
Mr. ADIGA: Right. Well, you know, he needs, as all entrepreneurs do, he needs seed money, venture capital to get started, and he figures out the only source of this is his master. To give away more there would be to give away the plot, but once he gets the venture capital, he comes to Bangalore, and her realizes he now - you know, he has to break into a field which is already quite saturated, and the only people who help him do this, quite ironically, the people who he's on the run from, the police.
And the best friends a man can have in this business are the police because it's a dangerous business. Driving recklessly at night can often get you into accidents. So he succeeds as an entrepreneur, quite ironically, because of his willingness to use the system that he has fought against in the first half of the book.
Although he does - I think it's ambiguous as to what he has become, exactly, at the end. I think he has always shown signs that he's at least felt sympathetic for some of the people that he has been cheating. He's never felt that he's had the luxury of compassion, and when he finally does get somewhere in life, he seems to show signs that he is capable of moral grown and becoming someone better.
SIMON: Mr. Adiga why, coming from a background in journalism, why write a novel, as opposed to yet another non-fiction book that would talk about the real Bangalore and the contrast between Bangalore and village India?
Mr. ADIGA: I think I'm writing about issues that are fundamentally unglamorous. I'm writing about poverty, about the growing gulf between the rich and the poor, and no matter what people say, I don't think these are issues that excite a lot of people, and to get someone to really read it, you know, to pay attention to these issues, a novel can be often a much sharper device than a non-fiction book. A novel can be a much edgier book. You know, it can unsettle and disturb you in a way that non-fiction, you know, can struggle to do.
It was important for me that this book should both entertain and disturb the reader so that he or she will keep thinking about some of the issues raised here.
SIMON: Mr. Adiga, thank you so much.
Mr. ADIGA: Thank you very much for having me.
SIMON: Speaking with us from Mumbai, Aravind Adiga. His new novel is "The White Tiger," and you can read an excerpt of Balram Halwai's first letter to the Chinese premier at npr.org/books.