Earlier this year, Salman Rushdie won the Booker of Bookers — a special prize set up to mark the award’s 40th anniversary — for Midnight’s Children, a book that defined India and Indian writing to a generation of readers across the world.
Rushdie’s latest cross-continental romp, The Enchantress of Florence, was left out of this year’s Man Booker shortlist, but it is exquisitely appropriate that another Indian writer — a 33-year-old whom not many had hitherto heard of — won English fiction’s most-hyped award by triumphing over strong competition (including fancied veteran Amitav Ghosh) with a story that is a riveting, trenchant portrait of contemporary India.
Aravind Adiga is £50,000 richer for the Man Booker Prize. But the real benefit of winning it will actually come in the rocketing international sales, the making of his reputation and (if he is lucky) a film deal, things that will buy Adiga — a full-time writer — the time and comfort to write.
“The first thing is to find a bank I can put it in,” the Mumbai-based novelist said when asked what he would do with the money.
That dark humour is very characteristic of The White Tiger, a novel that explores the inequalities between India’s aggressively consumerist urban elite and the deprived rural poor, and shows what happens when people from these two classes collide and collude with each other.
Adiga’s narrator, Balram Halwai, is uneducated and underprivileged and comes from India’s vast rural hinterland. Gritty and resourceful, armed with his consuming ambition to escape to the bright lights of a big city, he arrives in Delhi.
He becomes a rich man’s driver. He fulfils his ambition. But he also pays a terrible price. When we meet him in the novel, he is the owner of a successful start-up company in Bangalore.
“The story I wanted to do was that of a chauffer, because he listens to everything said in the car,” Adiga said. “What if someone used that information to do something extraordinary?”
The way Adiga — who was born in Chennai to an Australian father and Indian mother, brought up partly in Australia, educated at Columbia and Oxford and worked for Time magazine in Delhi — tells his story is compelling.
His anti-hero of a narrator — shrewd, wised-up and grimly determined — is the perfect prism through which to look at the chasm that divides two kinds of Indians, and the two Indias that they are inhabitants of.
Michael Portillo, the chairman of the judges, said the book won because “the judges felt it shocked and entertained in equal measure.”
Will the success of Adiga — the second-youngest winner ever after Ben Okri who won in 1991 at the age of 32 — provide a twist to the story of Indian publishing, as Arundhati Roy’s triumph in 1997 did, unleashing the ambitions of aspiring writers?
It might, but as Chiki Sarkar, editorial director of Random House (India) explained, would-be writers needn’t let their ambitions get ahead of themselves.
“Ninety-nine per cent of unsolicited manuscripts sent to a publishing house remain unpublished,” she said. “They are read by young recruits and if something is considered as having potential it is passed on.”
The award, though, is likely to change the course of Adiga’s life. He was brave enough to give up his day job so that he could dedicate himself to writing.
Two months ago, unsure of where his next book was going, scrounging on savings and advances he had got from The White Tiger, he was looking for a flat to rent in Mumbai.
“It’s so hard,” he had said at the time. “I am single, I don’t have a proper job, I am not rich. So few people seem to want to rent out a flat to me.”
Having seen him on TV all through Wednesday, future landlords might be a little less circumspect.
(with inputs from Damini Purakayastha in Delhi)