At the age of just 33 in 2008 Aravind Adiga
won the Booker prize for his first novel, The White Tiger. It was
career-making, but also – as becomes clear in the course of our conversation –
potentially career-breaking. Milestones can also be millstones. How do you
follow that? His latest novel, Selection Day, the story of two cricketing
brothers from the slums of Mumbai trying to achieve their ultra-pushy father’s
dream of superstardom, took Adiga five years to write. It was a slog; there
were times he thought he’d never finish it. And as we talk the reason becomes
clear: he was trying both to explore something personal in his own upbringing,
in which achieving academic success had crowded out the needs of childhood, and
to exorcise his Booker demons.

“The
White Tiger didn’t just win the Booker, it was a bestseller,” says Adiga. “I
had come out of complete obscurity, and at first I found it hard to deal with
the fact I was a published writer. Once you have written a book like The White
Tiger it’s very hard to escape from the shadow of it. I was frightened the
White Tiger would eat me up too.”

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The
year after winning the prize, Adiga published a set of linked short stories
called Between the Assassinations. They had been written before the novel and
many were set in Mangalore, the coastal town in south-west India in which he
had grown up. In 2011 he produced Last Man in Tower, a state-of-the-nation
novel in which one righteous man, the long-time resident of a crumbling Mumbai
tower block, stands up against the developers and gentrifies, representatives
of the money-obsessed new India trying to wipe away the old.

 

Last
Man in Tower was well received, but didn’t have the impact or sales of his
first book, which had told the story of the new India through the other end of
the telescope, letting its amoral central character Balram Halwai, the son of
an impoverished rickshaw puller, offer an extended justification for the murder
of his employer. The killing had allowed Balram to escape from the darkness of
poverty into the light of prosperity; so what that it cost the life of his
well-meaning if corrupt boss and led to his own family being wiped out in the
ensuing vendetta? In India’s new entrepreneurial age, the means justified the
end. That message was controversial in India, but wannabe entrepreneurs in its
burgeoning middle class still felt the need to buy the book to find out what
the fuss was about

 

The
White Tiger was short, sharp, fast-paced, visceral and perfectly timed –
winning the Booker in the midst of the global financial crisis of 2007-08 when
worshipping the god of money had led us all to hell. The tone of Last Man in
Tower was more considered, the canvas wider, the cast more sprawling. “I had a
big anxiety about what to do next,” Adiga admits. “You can never please the
people who like The White Tiger. It was written in a certain way, at a certain
time, and I don’t want to do that again. I asked myself where I would go from
there; how could I keep growing as a writer? I’m very grateful I won because it’s
kept me alive as a writer – its tough surviving as a writer of fiction in India
– but it has been a challenge to escape from The White Tiger.”

He sees Selection Day as a
very different book – more autobiographical, more reflective, and more subtle
in its critique of Indian capitalism and corruption – and part of the process
of unhooking the tiger’s claws. The two brothers, Manju and Radha, and their
cricketing rival Javed face a fundamental question: do they give their lives to
cricket, which would please their fathers, or do they give their lives to …
well, to life.  Radha is wedded to the
search for cricketing success; Javed, gay and a Muslim (a dual outsider in
Indian society), is intent on living freely, an admirable aim made easier by
the fact he is from a wealthy background; Manju is conflicted: not just about
cricket and whether to devote himself to it, but about his sexuality. His
attraction to Javed is central to the book. Which life does he choose? You hope
for a successful, conventional conclusion to their love story, but dreams don’t
always work out. At least they don’t in Adiga’s clear-eyed, hard-edged view of
the world.  The Indian arm of Netflix has
this month announced it is turning Selection Day into a TV series, and it will
be interesting to see how the bleak coda to the book is treated. Comedy and
tragedy are conjoined in Adiga’s fiction, as in India itself, and finding the
right tone on TV will be far from easy. The lives of the two brothers echo
Adiga’s own, though in his case with the emphasis on academic success rather
than cricketing prowess. He has a brother, five years older, and both were high
flyers, outstanding students in their home state of Karnataka. The pressure to
succeed was huge. His background is usually described as prosperous – his
father was a surgeon. Indeed, some have questioned his right to write about the
lives of the Indian poor given his supposedly privileged upbringing. But he
portrays it differently. His mother, who died of cancer when he was 15 (absent
mothers

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