White Tiger Author Aravind Adiga Answers Your Questions
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Where do you see India in next 25 years — culturally, politically, technologically, and human-relations wise?
— Sreenivasa Reddy Gali
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.
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
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.
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)?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.