White Tiger Author Aravind Adiga Answers Your Questions

INSERT DESCRIPTIONAravind Adiga

Last week, we solicited your questions for Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger, a rambunctious tragicomic novel about modern India.

You asked, among many other things, why India and the U.S. don’t get along as well as they could; whether India’s poverty is endemic; and if someone like President Obama, or, more generally, a member of a minority group in India, could be elected to India’s highest office.

As in White Tiger, Adiga writes with forthrightness and defiance about India and its culture, including what he thinks unites India and keeps it from becoming “a failed state like Pakistan” and why Indians living abroad shouldn’t be too upset if their fellow expats don’t invite them to dinner. With India’s monthlong elections just underway, some of his answers about politics are especially resonant. Thanks to all.

Question

Do you think it’s possible that Indians will one day have the political will to eradicate poverty, or do you think Indian politicians and non-poor people consider poverty endemic — the poor you will have with you always? — Elaine McCarthy

Answer

Dear Elaine, thanks for your question. I’m an optimist on the future of India; I think young Indians want real change and are determined to reduce the corruption and misgovernance that are the root causes of poverty in India. We have seen dramatic reductions in poverty in parts of India that have good governance — in the southern state of Kerala, for instance — and I think that if young Indians step up the pressure on the political system, poverty can be slashed in the coming decade. But time is running out. The environment is an ominous factor — the growing scarcity of fresh water is driving more people into poverty every day — and action has to start now.

Question

Why, I wonder, does America practically tie itself at the hip to China, when India, the world’s largest democracy, seems like such a better fit? Is it just the economics or, as my wife suggests, a holdover from India-Soviet Union alliances of the past? — Scott Baker

Answer

India and the United States are natural allies in just about every way. They’re both liberal, tolerant, democratic countries in a world where democracy, free speech, and religious tolerance are increasingly under threat. And yet relations between the countries have been poor for so many years. It’s a real shame, and the fault lies on both sides: the United States has been, for decades, the most lavish military donor to Pakistan, a military-run, Islamist country that sponsors terrorism within India.

In turn, India’s inept socialist politicians and diplomats have foolishly abused America far too often in the U.N. and other international forums. What pleases me is that there’s been dramatic improvement in India-America ties in recent years, and a real friendship has started between the countries. But American policy-makers must be sensitive to the negative impact on Indian sentiment of crude, racist, anti-outsourcing rhetoric — and of America’s continuing military aid to Pakistan, which still allows Jihadi terrorists, like the ones who attacked Mumbai last year and killed hundreds of innocent men and women, to train inside its territory. India, for its part, must not ask too many concessions from America and must shed whatever remains of its old knee-jerk anti-Americanism. With give and take, this relationship can grow into the most important one of this century.

Question

Where do you see India in next 25 years — culturally, politically, technologically, and human-relations wise?
Sreenivasa Reddy Gali

Answer

I think this is the hardest question of all to answer, and I think about this every day. What I fear is that too many middle-class Indians look at some indicators of prosperity, like the spread of cell phones in the country, while ignoring other indicators, like the growing shortage of fresh water. The worst-case scenario is that India wastes its immense potential and ends up as a country that is significantly richer than it is today, but with deep, lingering class divisions, higher levels of crime and social unrest, and millions who will never have access to the education and economic freedom that is their birthright. In other words, India ends up as a kind of immense South American country in the heart of Asia. India can do much, much better than this, and I hope that its citizens force its government to give them this better future.

Question

Is modern India as striated with respect to class and caste as was 1950’s and 1960’s America with respect to race? And do you see this situation improving or devolving? Would an Indian version of Barack Obama, i.e., a member of the minority class, ever have a chance of being elected to India’s highest office or is the political class just too static? — MTD

Answer

The caste system is changing fast in India, and it has become more fluid. There is the real prospect of Mayawati, a politician from the Dalit community (the former underclass of Hindu society) becoming prime minister after this election. However, I think we shouldn’t be looking at the caste or religion of the leaders of India; we should be asking what they do for the poor once they are elected. Mayawati, for instance, has been leader of a major Indian state for a long time and wields immense power there, but she has done little for the poor during her time in office; all indicators are that the condition of the poor may have deteriorated under her rule. There is no alternative to good governance to fix the colossal problems facing India — and just electing someone from a particular caste is no solution.

Question

In an interview you stated “If you were a poor man you’d have to pick China over India any day because your kids have a better chance of being nourished if you’re poor. Your wife is more likely to survive childbirth. You’re likely to live longer. There are so many ways in which India’s system fails horribly.”

Do you think in some ways India should adopt a Chinese model of development? In what ways? Should India sacrifice political freedom for short-term economic growth (assuming that’s an actual trade-off)?
vimspot

Answer

The only alternative to Indian democracy, which has failed over 500 million people by leaving them in abject poverty, is an improved version of Indian democracy. None of India’s neighbors is truly democratic, yet all of them have failed their poor as well. My point in The White Tiger is to puncture the sense of complacency that too many Indians have — this feeling that, oh, we’re a democracy, all our problems are fixed. Democracy isn’t a panacea. Corruption and misgovernance can thrive within a democracy, as India’s history shows; they have to be addressed before democracy works for the poor.

Question

I am a white American married to an Indian immigrant. We are both highly educated and well mannered. The Indian community will not socialize with us even though we are raising our son Hindu and make efforts to join social circles. What do you think is the cause of this? Our general feeling is that the Indian expats fear American socialization of their children and do not want us around as and example of mixed marriages.
Clifton Williams

Answer

Dear Clifton, I’m really sorry to hear this. I can tell you that most Indians are welcoming, friendly people — and I bet that once your comment is posted, dozens of Indians living in America will write to say that they’d be happy to have you and your wife over for dinner. Certainly, if you were here in Mumbai, where I live, you’d have no shortage of friends. India has been governed for five years by Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born woman who married Rajiv Gandhi, an Indian politician: she is accepted as Indian here, and is loved by millions. It is the case, though, that Indians who migrate to America become more conservative, insular, and nostalgic than they would be here. They didn’t speak to me much when I was in America, either, if that’s any consolation. I never got invited anywhere for dinner in the Indian community; they didn’t want their daughters marrying a punk like me, either. Just ignore them and visit India; you’ll never feel isolated again.

Question

What unites India and gives it a collective identity despite its bewildering diversity? Is it Indian civilization’s concept of “dharma”? If so, how would you see the younger generation of Indians enamored with the imported Western “desires” reconciling the ancient and time-tested concept of dharma. — Arvind C

Answer

What unites India is the innate liberalism of its culture, I think. Indians are a liberal, tolerant people: there is room for free speech and debate here. No other country in South Asia is as free as India; that is why India is the only truly stable country in a region torn by civil strife and chaos. Look at the example of Pakistan, for instance, which is plunged in chaos. What keeps India strong is its freedom. In the last 10 years, this freedom of expression has come under attack from various extremist groups — Hindu extremists, Islamic fundamentalists, ultra-nationalists — and I fear that freedom of speech is diminishing by the day. Without its freedoms, India turns into a failed state like Pakistan.

Question

Your book is transformational writing. Superb. Why are so many people of Indian origin so upset about your depiction of reality there? I can understand Slumdog Millionaire being slightly offensive, but why your book? — Dionisio Filipo Romano

Answer

The White Tiger is an edgy book — and I did want it to start a debate within India about where the country is headed. Some Indian readers have been very upset — and some of the things said about the book and me have been extreme. However, I would point out that it’s Indians living abroad — especially in the U.S.A. — who have been the most upset. I don’t particularly want them to like me — many of these expatriates are right-wing nuts, and fund Hindu extremist organizations in India, and it’s a badge of honor to be abused by them. Here in India, The White Tiger is a best-seller, and has sold nearly 150,000 copies. That’s the key thing for me.


G Lazman

I find it interesting that the author labels both nations as liberal and tolerant. While I can't speak for India, and I realize that the author may be defining this in a more relative way (for example, the US as compared to North Korea or Iran), I don't see the US as particularly liberal or tolerant. Maybe, the differences between the two countries in this regard is part of the problem, rather than a basis for common ground.

charles

Be careful to define the word "liberal." Is it liberal use of government intervention, or is it social liberalism where a wider range of social behavior is tolerated? Legislative liberalism is the equivalent of social conservatism. It's about control.

VA

I find the responses from the author interesting. There are some view points interesting and there are a few that I am in not so much of an agreement. However, I would like to correct the author on a fact he says 'India has been governed for five years by Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born woman who married Rajiv Gandhi'. It is not true that India has been governed by Sonia Gandhi for the last five year or ever. She wanted to, but there was a huge uproar and instead a puppet leader Mr.Manmohan Singh was put on the hot seat while she has been doing her thing from the back door.

Having said that, to answer about Minority class, Mr.Manmohan Singh himself is a minority community member in India. There have been multiple Presidents in India who belonged to the minority classes. But the author is right when he says that minority leaders don't necessarily equate to minority development. There is a long way to go and India is developing slowly but surely.

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Betsy

I like the way this dialogue compares and contrasts India with the US. I I find it interesting that several times the author mentions governmental corruption and mis-management as a large factor in the problem of poverty in India. Take it as a cautionary tale. Corruption and abuse of power have grown substantially in this country over the past 20 years - as has the number of people living in poverty. If we are not careful, India's past may be our future.

Bryan

Charles - what is legislative liberalism, and what is the "control" it refers to? Is it something more solid that "the man" trying keep "the people" down?

Dot Kostriken

His tale, a modern version of an Indian Candide, particularly appropriate as India is in ascent, while we descend.

Cliff Love

As a tourist you aren't exposed to the acute class/caste tensions in India. One can experience this extremely unpleasant behavior after breaking the ice with natives and diving into the intricacies if the society and culture. To tell you the truth, as a visitor to various countries, it's the same familiar unpleasantness one feels in any "enlightened" society that claims to be non-discriminatory. Sadly to say - it's a disgusting global cross cultural malady.................. imagine - as John Lennon wrote .....................

Cliff, Ein Hod, Israel.

Saleem Taj

I agree with most things the writer says but his silence on Kashmir is deafening--can he tell us with a straight face what half a million Indian soldiers are doing in the valley? Distributing sweets?

Griffin

Greetings to the world's largest Democracy: India.

But to be sure, is there is poverty in India, one can think of hundreds of good reasons - and India itself may have caused many of them.

For example 1) overpopulation, over the longer time frame of Indian civilization, depleted Indian resourses, burned every stick of wood, and left it a bare dirt lot.

Then too 2) the caste system worked against real democracy.

While 3) the extreme asceticism of its predominantly religious culture ... in fact glamorizes material poverty ... and encourages it, not as a curse, but as a positive goal.

Along with 4) age-old entrenched habits that make change - including progress - impossible.

And a 5) polytheism, that made it impossible for the country to really unite.

To be sure, all this was no doubt worsened, by the 6) stuffy Victorian Christian moralism/aecestism of British occupiers. Who brought even more asceticism, and even more bureaucracy. And their continuing prestige today, adds up to more attachment to the past; albiet at least, the 19th, rather than, say, the 5th, century.

What is the solution? Or would you say youreself that after all, anti-materialism,and the moderate poverty it is related to, is not so bad? Or that polytheism is better than everyone marchign to the same wrong drum?

Some of us do think about India, often, here in America. And we think that any solution to its problems, will come by ... many of us thinking together.

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Harrkar

Well Said.

>>>

In other words, India ends up as a kind of immense South American country in the heart of Asia.

Fawad

What a disappointing and lame interview! It reads like an Indian government commercial aimed at well meaning but ill-informed foreigners. The insight and candor that makes The White Tiger such an interesting read about India's urban rich and rural poor in a time of increasing prosperity, the continued failure of political institutions to keep up with people's expectations and the ever volatile Hindu-Muslim relations is completely missing here. Balram Halwai, the protagonist of The White Tiger is a far more believable interpreter of India today than Mr. Adiga the Booker-winner author. In this interview he seems to be looking for pen pals rather than engaging his questioners in a honest conversation about India.

Even in response to MTD's interesting question, Mr. Adiga seems more worried about avoiding giving foreigners a "bad impression" of India than giving an intelligent answer about India's social divisions and whether they are getting better or worse. He gives an obvious rich/poor (Slumdog Millionaire) answer but avoids the words Muslim, Kashmir, Gujarat, Naxalites, terrorism etc.

Full disclosure: I am a Pakistani American but because that can be seen by many Indians as prima facie evidence of malintent let me say that I don't dispute Adiga's assertion of Pakistan as at least a failing if not a failed state. But implying as Adiga does that the primary source of political volatility, violence and social divisions in India is Pakistan is disingenuous at best. After thoroughly enjoying his edgy novel and looking for an intelligent take on India I was quite disappointed by Adiga's evasive interview here. If one wants to read intelligent views about modern India one should instead turn to Pankaj Mishra, Mukul Kesavan or even Martha Nussbaum.

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nemo

The author, by his caustic remarks about Indians in America, has hurt his argument about Indians being tolerant.

Rashmi

As a secular, leftist Indian-American, I am saddened on a personal level that Mr. Adiga is so embittered and negative about our community.

But on an intellectual level I am slightly annoyed. He should know better than to make crass generalizations about how intolerant "we" all are, as if "we" are one homogenous entity; as if the same diversity in India is not mirrored in its diaspora.

I do not deny that there are plenty of (Hindu) fundamentalist sympathizers in the US. While I can't speak for the rest of the country, I can say that NYC has a thriving leftist/activist South Asian American community. There is no shortage of organizations that support women's rights, human rights, and cross-cultural exchange.

Not to generalize, but perhaps Indian-Americans were more upset by his book (which I have not read yet, but plan to) because many of us grew up in an atmosphere which was intolerant or hostile to our culture/religion. I think that having spent a lot of our childhood defending ourselves against racist remarks and ignorant stereotypes, many of us find that it is a hard habit to break. It's not necessarily the most rational response, but I feel that it's a part of the second generation experience - something Mr. Adiga naturally cannot understand or relate to.

Pankaj Mishra IS fantastic. I also strongly recommend Shashi Tharoor and of course Arundhati Roy.

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Rohan

Saleem:

>>> can he tell us with a straight face what half a million Indian soldiers are doing in the valley? Distributing sweets?

No, they're in Kashmir protecting India from the several thousand friendly neighborhood jihadis who have flooded the valley to, well, distribute sweets.

Forza Barca!

Caste is not class. Caste is about ritual purity, and to a lesser extent about ethnic purity. Orthodox Jews practice ritual purity. Ritual purity is about social boundaries, cleanliness, honor and shame. To understand the caste system, it would behoove anyone to understand the dynamics of ritual purity. Class is fluid. Caste is not fluid. Mr. Arvind Adiga is being dishonest when he replaces the word "class" with "caste." To understand India, one must understand the caste system. To understand poverty in India, one must understand the caste system. Why? Because some castes are deemed to do the dirty jobs: pick up feces, sweeping the streets etc.

The first thing an Indian asks me is, "What do you do for a living?" When I tell them I am a social worker, I am looked as if I have contracted leprosy. If I were either a doctor or engineer or wealthy businessman, their attitude would be positively enhanced. I miss the India I knew: quite a bit of love and joy. Here in the US, for most Indians everything is about what you do and what you own. An attitude not unlike white Americans who have attended an Ivy League school or people who live in the ultra-exclusive Coto de Caza in Orange County, CA.

Here in the US I am happy. I have a wide array of friends.
I won't be rejoining the Indian community. What do I miss most about India? My parents, the food, the attitude towards learning as an end in itself, and watching cricket and football matches and F1 racing with my friends.

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Eric M. Jones

Aravind,

The English were in India for a century before they discovered that there was a caste below the Untouchables. They survived by washing the undergarments of the Untouchables. The Untouchables would pile their clothes in small conical piles with a penny underneath. Next morning they would be clean.There is no caste name for these unfortunate people since even the mention of them was to be defiled.

The English were perplexed about how to study this "under-caste", since the mere mention of them caused people to block their ears and deny that they existed.

How about you?

liam johanssen

is there a ghost writer sitting in to answer the questions or was it a ghost writer who wrote the book? talk about a disconnect. the book's cutting critique was presented with charisma and charm. its author revealed the complex layers that make up indian society. yet, the person answering these questions chooses the overly-simplistic route one would expect from an ultra-national working for the department of tourism. you may as well have just made the headline say "come visit india! it's great!". i wouldn't have predicted the author of white tiger would attack pakistan in answer to questions that don't even mention pakistan. further, why comment on pakistani politics without addressing the complexity underlying that society?

johnleemk

G Lazman, compared to many other countries in the world, the US is pretty darn liberal and tolerant. India has its own issues but I think both it and the US are pretty comparable in this particular sphere -- both countries could do better, but they're pretty far from the bottom of the pack.

Soviet Capitalist

Clifton,
I am an Indian living in Hong Kong. You'd be most welcome at our place for drinks and dinner next time you are in the region with the family.

*Actually, I am only inviting you because I don't have any kids whom you could spoil.*

M

Mr. Adiga,

I am a second generation Indian American in my twenties. I did not grow up in the Northeast or on the West Coast, but in the Midwest

Every single person of Indian origin or with Indian heritage that I have met is socially liberal albeit to varying degrees. Ninety-nine percent + of them believe in a capitalist society, or at least that it is by far the best alternative that is out there. I make no claim to know much about Indian politics, but from what I have gathered economics is at the heart of the problem and some states in India are still under communist control. Is this what you say makes "us" right wing?

I do not know anyone who has contributed funds to such organizations. In fact, the unanimous consensus among all of the families and people I grew up with was that the Indian government and all political parties and organizations in India are riddled with corruption from top to bottom. Students and recent graduates my age struggle have struggled on decisions on whether to join reputable volunteer organizations such as IndiCorp because of recent debates that have been going on about its sources of funding.

I'm not saying this conscientiousness or these beliefs are the norm. And if you want to attribute this anomaly to my growing up in a liberal university town in the middle of cornfields, then that's on you. However, to generalize to such a degree that somehow leaves out the views, actions, and beliefs of the majority of my peers and elders that include some of the kindest, most accepting, and enlightened people I know seems wrong.

I find it ironic that you are either oblivious to or are willing to ignore such a minority (if that is what "we" truly are) of first and second generation American Indians that are free thinkers for the sake of comfortably answering a question. Personally, I found your comments extremely hurtful which is why I decided to post for the first time in my years of reading this blog.

It is really a shame I read this brief interview before I read your book. After reading such raving reviews, I was looking forward to enjoying a good honest book on India. I can only hope that your work is like Ayn Rand's-- much more respectable than its creator.

-M

P.S. Hi T! Thanks for reading this :)

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