23rd October 1974: Aravind Adiga, Indian author and journalist, was born

Writer and journalist Aravind Adiga, whose debut novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, was born on October 23, 1974 in Chennai (the city was called Madras then) to K. Madhava Adiga and Usha, originally residents of Mangalore in Karnataka. He grew up in Mangalore till he was about 16 and then moved with his family to Australia. He later studied English literature at Columbia University in the United States. He also studied at Oxford.

Recalling his Mangalore days and his reading habits as a child and teenager, in an article in The Independent, Adiga wrote: “I rarely saw any of my middle-class classmates read a Kannada book out of the classroom, where we were forced to learn poems and prose extracts in the lifeless way, reinforced with violence, typical of provincial Indian education in the 1980s. All the glamour was in English ... Nor were there many Indian writers of serious English literature: I could find none except for R.K. Narayan, who seemed our only contender in the big ring. The two Indians known to have written important works of non-fiction were both tainted by the popular feeling that they were ‘unpatriotic’—Nirad Chaudhuri and V. S. Naipaul—and I stayed away from both.”

Adiga was the South Asia correspondent of the Time magazine for three years, and later worked as a freelance journalist.  

The White Tiger—which takes an unflattering look at modern India’s economic boom through the eyes of Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw-puller and an anti-hero of sorts—was chosen over other books in the 2008 Booker shortlist that included Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, and Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole.

Michael Portillo, who chaired the group of judges to choose the 2008 winner, said the final panel meeting was marked by “passionate debate” and though Adiga’s book eventually won by a “sufficient” margin, “it was pretty close”.

Speaking after bagging the prestigious £50,000 prize, Adiga said class was a “boring topic” to write about. “Big divides are not what people are interested in. But it’s the most pressing concern — because other things spring out of it, like terrorism and instability,” he said. “The book has done very well in India — and there is a need for books like this. Something extraordinary is happening between the rich and the poor. Once, there was at least a common culture between rich and poor, but that has been eroded, and people have noted that.”

Reviews of The White Tiger were mixed, with Indian critics, in general, less warm to the book than their western counterparts. Calling the book “an ‘India for Dummies’” a couple of weeks after it won the Booker, in a piece in The Hindu, the writer Amitava Kumar said: “The first-person narration disguises a cynical anthropology. Because his [Adiga’s] words are addressed to an outsider, the Chinese Premier, Halwai was at freedom to present little anthropological mini-essays on all matters Indian. It […] proves quite adept at finding the vilest impulse in nearly every human being it represents.”

The British newspaper The Telegraph, on the other hand, called it a “furious and brutally effective counterblast to smug ‘India is shining’ rhetoric [...] which also directs hard, well-aimed kicks at hypocrisy and thuggery on the traditionalist Indian Left”.

Calling it a “witty parable of India’s changing society”, The Guardian said there was “much to commend” in this novel. “Balram has worked out early in life that good deeds usually have awful consequences,” the review said. “This is because he, along with most lowly Indians, inhabits the Darkness, a place where basic necessities are routinely snatched by the wealthy, who live in the Light.” However, the reviewer adds, “My hunch is this is fundamentally an outsider’s view and a superficial one.”

The New York Times reviewer felt the novel was simplistic, “an effective polemic, perhaps, but an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity”.

Addressing the charge on not being “authentic”, in an interview to the Australian newspaper The Age, Adiga said: “I don’t think a novelist should just write about his own experiences. Yes, I am the son of a doctor (who lives in Sydney); yes, I had a rigorous formal education, but for me the challenge of a novelist is to write about people who aren’t anything like me.”

Adiga’s second book, Between the Assassinations, was released in India in November 2008. His third book, Last Man in Tower, was published in 2011. Between the Assassinations is a collection of short stories set in a period between the assassinations of two Indian prime ministers -- Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The protagonist of Last Man In Tower is a retired teacher, Masterji, who refuses to sell his Mumbai apartment to a builder.

Having joined a select list of Indians who have won the Man Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga is part of the success story of Indian writers who have made it big globally.


Also on this day:

1923 — Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, former Vice-President of India, and chief minister of Rajasthan, was born

1957 — Sunil Mittal, founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, was born

1998 — Purohita Narasimhachar, Kannada playwright and poet, passed away  

2012 — Sunil Gangopadhyay, Bengali poet and novelist, passed away

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