Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Adiga Wins the 2008 Man-Booker

Well, smack, as they say, my fanny, and call me Diana (or Charlie, if you prefer). A rank outsider has won the Booker; what a surprise! Arvind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, an acidic satire (is this a tautology?) on modern India, blew Michael Portillo’s socks off, and landed the glabrous Indian with the 2008 Man Booker prize. In recent years the Booker awarding committees seem to take special (and, you can’t help wondering, malicious) pleasure in proving the bookies wrong. They have done it for the fourth successive year, awarding the prize, as it happens, to two Irish and two Indian authors. Indeed, being tipped by the bookies as a favourite must, now, be counted as a certainty that the novel—it was Sebastian Barry’s misfortune to have been backed by the bookies to win the prize this year—will not make it.

For the record, Adiga is the fourth Indian born author after Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Kiran Desai to have won the Booker. One can add to this list V.S. Naipaul, who, while he wasn’t born or lived in India, is of Indian ancestry. He (Adiga, not Naipaul), at 33, is the second youngest author to win the Booker, after Ben Okri (who won it when he was 32). He is the fourth author after Keri Hulme (1985), Arundhati Roy (1997) and DBC Pierre (2003) to win the award for his debut novel. In an interview to BBC Radio 4 Adiga laid to rest any fears that he might suffer the same fate as that of the two women, neither of whom has published another novel after their prize-winning efforts (although Roy, to be fair, has published a couple of works of non-fiction, and is rumoured to have been working, after a decade, on her second novel; Hulme, as the cliché goes, has disappeared without trace). When asked whether he was thinking about writing his next novel, Adiga replied that his next novel—he was rather coy about its subject matter, and mumbled some unconvincing clichés about writing being an intensely personal and private activity—was more or less complete. One imagines that after the Booker success he would not have much trouble in finding a publisher.

Adiga’s novel, which he has been at pains to clarify (a) is not so much angry as funny, and (b) was a ‘bestseller’ in his home-country, India, even before it was long-and-short-listed for the Booker (one hopes that the novel, which has so far sold a meagre 3000 copies in the West, will do better post-Booker), is about what he describes as the ‘other India’, comprising, he would have us believe, the majority of that country’s denizens, who have not reaped the rewards of the economic liberalization in the past decade or so. (Given the sobering statistics, announced by the World Health organization this month, outlining the extent of the problem of malnutrition facing modern India—40% of the world’s malnourished live in India, and some states in Northern and Central parts of India are apparently on par with some of the sub-Saharan African countries—there may be some truth in this claim.) This vast underclass, Adiga claims, is the real India, not the 5% of the affluent, educated, privileged class, to which, incidentally, he, a son of a doctor, belongs. Some have questioned Adiga’s credentials to write about underclass to which he does not belong, the implicit assumption being his view, therefore, is that of an outsider, not, somehow, quite echt. This is rather harsh. Orwell’s Down And Out in Paris and London is no less authentic because he belonged to the chattering classes. (It is not a very well known fact that in writing Down And Out in Paris and London Orwell was no more than a literary tourist. Orwell lived as a homeless and unemployed, all the time secure in the knowledge that he could return to the bosom of his wealthy family any time, which is what he did after a few weeks, having gathered, presumably, enough raw material to write a novel.) Adiga worked, for a few years, as a business journalist for the Time magazine, and, during his travels, had, allegedly, the opportunity to look at the downtrodden of India from close quarters. The White Tiger was the result of these travels, a novel, he has revealed, he wrote a few years ago, although it was published only recently. Adiga says he took upon himself to write about ‘the brutal injustice’ of the Indian society—‘India is a society of profound inequality and inequality is not just a moral vice, it also leads to instability’, he declares— since no one had done it, according to him, previously. By this, he probably means English language novels written by Indians. India is only a partial English speaking country, but it has a long literary tradition; there must be wealth of local literature waiting to be translated into English. One imagines literature was getting published in some or more of India’s several local languages—each state has its own language— for a while before some or more of the educated Indians cottoned on to the idea of writing in English, thereby attracting a wider audience, recognition (and possibly royalties) for their works; and it stretches the limits of credulity somewhat to assume that the disadvantaged and dispossessed went unrepresented in Indian literature before Adiga got his brainwave. In a recent interview Adiga drew comparisons with Flaubert, Balzac, and Dickens—nothing wrong in that; you might as well do it yourself if no one else seems to be in a rush to do it—claiming that his work, just like theirs, threw into sharp relief the injustice of the society; and he hoped that Indian society would be a better one as a result of his endeavours, just as French and British societies became better ones as a result of theirs. One has to admire the nobility of the young man’s ambition.

I have often wondered how a winner of such awards is chosen. There must have been books which were unanimous choices of all the judges. I should like to think that Schindler’s List and The Remains of the Day were two such winners. According to Paul Theroux, one of the judges on the 1979 panel, the winner that year, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, which holds the record of the shortest book to have won the Booker, was a ‘compromise winner’: the panel was apparently equally divided between those who felt V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River was a masterpiece and those who were determined (Theroux amongst them) to ensure that Naipaul, who, even then, had managed to antagonize many, did not win the Booker the second time. The White Tiger, by all accounts, was not a compromise winner. There was a fierce deadlock with Adiga edging out Barry, the Bookies’ favourite, 3:2. One judge was said to be in tears when she (or he) could not win over a third person to Barry.

Finally, what about Linda Grant, my choice for the Booker? Well, she might not have trousered the £ 50,000 award, but, according to her (appropriately named) blog, The Thoughtful Dresser, on which she was agitating for months about not having a suitable dress to wear for the ceremony, she was the only one of the short-listed author who ‘walked away with a free Oasis Clarke dress.’