15 Oct :Who are some of your literary influences? Do you identify yourself particularly as an Indian writer?
It might make more sense to speak of influences on this book, rather than on me. The influences on The White Tiger are three black American writers of the post-World War II era (in order), Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. The odd thing is that I haven’t read any of them for years and years — I read Ellison’s Invisible Man in 1995 or 1996, and have never returned to it — but now that the book is done, I can see how deeply it’s indebted to them. As a writer, I don’t feel tied to any one identity; I’m happy to draw influences from wherever they come.
Could you describe your process as a writer? Was the transition from journalism to fiction difficult?
A first draft of The White Tiger was written in 2005, and then put aside. I had given up on the book. Then, for reasons I don’t fully understand myself, in December 2006, when I’d just returned to India after a long time abroad, I opened the draft and began rewriting it entirely. I wrote all day long for the next month, and by early January 2007, I could see that I had a novel on my hands.
From where did the inspiration for Balram Halwai come? How did you capture his voice?
Balram Halwai is a composite of various men I’ve met when traveling through India. I spend a lot of my time loitering about train stations, or bus stands, or servants’ quarters and slums, and I listen and talk to the people around me. There’s a kind of continuous murmur or growl beneath middle-class life in India, and this noise never gets recorded. Balram is what you’d hear if one day the drains and faucets in your house started talking.
This novel is rich in detail — from the (often corrupt) workings of the police force to the political system, from the servant classes of Delhi to the businessmen of Bangalore. What kind of research went into this novel?
The book is a novel: it’s fiction. Nothing in its chapters actually happened and no one you meet here is real. But it’s built on a substratum of Indian reality. Here’s one example: Balram’s father, in the novel, dies of tuberculosis. Now, this is a make-believe death of a make-believe figure, but underlying it is a piece of appalling reality — the fact that nearly a thousand Indians, most of them poor, die every day from tuberculosis. So if a character like Balram’s father did exist, and if he did work as a rickshaw puller, the chances of his succumbing to tuberculosis would be pretty high. I’ve tried hard to make sure that anything in the novel has a correlation in Indian reality. The government hospitals, the liquor shops, and the brothels that turn up in the novel are all based on real places in India that I’ve seen in my travels.
In the novel, you write about the binary nature of Indian culture: the Light and the Darkness and how the caste system has been reduced to "Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies." Would you say more about why you think the country has come to be divided into these categories?
It’s important that you see these classifications as Balram’s rather than as mine. I don’t intend for the reader to identify all the time with Balram: some may not wish to identify with him very much at all. The past fifty years have seen tumultuous changes in India’s society, and these changes — many of which are for the better — have overturned the traditional hierarchies, and the old securities of life. A lot of poorer Indians are left confused and perplexed by the new India that is being formed around them.
Although Ashok has his redeeming characteristics, for the most part your portrayal of him, his family, and other members of the upper class is harsh. Is the corruption as rife as it seems, and will the nature of the upper class change or be preserved by the economic changes in India?
Just ask any Indian, rich or poor, about corruption here. It’s bad. It shows no sign of going away, either. As to what lies in India’s future — that’s one of the hardest questions in the world to answer.
Your novel depicts an India that we don’t often see. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view? Why does a Western audience need this alternative portrayal?
The main reason anyone would want to read this book, or so I hope, is because it entertains them and keeps them hooked to the end. I don’t read anything because I "have" to: I read what I enjoy reading, and I hope my readers will find this book fun, too.
I simply wrote about the India that I know, and the one I live in. It’s not "alternative India" for me! It’s pretty mainstream, trust me.
How did your background as a business journalist inform the novel, which has as its protagonist an entrepreneurial, self-made man? With all the changes India is undergoing, is it fostering change within its population, or are the challenges and costs of success as great as they were for Balram?
Actually, my background as a business journalist made me realize that most of what’s written about in business magazines is bullshit, and I don’t take business or corporate literature seriously at all. India is being flooded with "how to be an Internet businessman" kind of books, and they’re all dreadfully earnest and promise to turn you into Iacocca in a week. This is the kind of book that my narrator mentions, mockingly — he knows that life is a bit harder than these books promise. There are lots of self-made millionaires in India now, certainly, and lots of successful entrepreneurs. But remember that over a billion people live here, and for the majority of them, who are denied decent health care, education, or employment, getting to the top would take doing something like what Balram has done.
One thing at the heart of this novel, and in the heart of Balram as well, is the tension between loyalty to oneself and to one’s family. Does this tension mirror a conflict specific to India, or do you think it’s universal?
The conflict may be more intense in India, because the family structure is stronger here than in, say, America, and loyalty to family is virtually a test of moral character. (So, "You were rude to your mother this morning" would be, morally, the equivalent of "You embezzled funds from the bank this morning.") The conflict is there, to some extent, everywhere.
What is next for you? Are you working on another novel?