What does writing mean to you?
Writing is my karma. It is my fate and I have to bear it.
It’s a colourful fate though. You trained as an academic, worked as a journalist, became a fiction writer. Why the different lines?
My mother wanted to be an academic in Chennai. She’d been thwarted in this goal because of her marriage. She was eager that at least one of her two sons should become a professor. Until my mid-20s, I expected to become a lecturer in English. I studied English literature in
I’ve changed careers twice — an academic to a journalist, then a novelist. I’m glad to be out of journalism but I do envy academics their career of pure intellectual work. I’m a very bookish person and enjoy spending time in libraries. I also enjoy teaching. I sometimes wish I had chosen a profession that allowed me to teach. But, for better or worse, a writer is what I am now.
Location is central to your stories. “The White Tiger” grew out of Gurgaon’s dust and dazzle. “Last Man in Tower” is a Mumbai story of trains, towers and temptations. Must books originate in places you’ve lived in?
The novel usually evolves out of something I’ve seen or read. “Last Man in Tower” began when I read an article in the Times of India in early 2007, describing a redevelopment offer by a builder, opposed by one old man in the building. I went to the building and spoke to some of the residents — so it evolved out of real life. I was looking for an exciting plot that would let me tell a story about Mumbai…
A solitary narrator walked us through “The White Tiger”. In your new work, we go up and down a tower of babble. How did this expansion occur in your writing?
I spend a lot of time out on the street, walking, observing things. These experiences are particularly rich in Mumbai. I love the city and wanted to capture my experiences in exploring her in a novel. Mumbai made me a successful writer, and I will always be grateful to her and her people. The real hero of “Last Man in Tower” is Mumbai.
Your novels are tense with the conflict between old and new India. As a child of Nehru’s India, are you suspicious of liberalisation and what all that money’s doing to us?
I wish I were a child of Nehru’s India! But I was born in 1974. I was a child of the harsher socialist regime imposed by Mrs Gandhi. I am not — and will never be — an opponent of the great economic boom initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. In fact, I think it saved India from ruin and stagnation. I remember we had to bribe people in Mangalore in the old days just to get a confirmed ticket on
In 1990, I stood first in Karnataka in the annual SSLC (year 10) exams. When I came to Bangalore to collect an award from the education minister, I was humiliated by the rich boys there — all of whom I had beaten — because I had a thick accent when I spoke English and I did not know who Lionel Richie was.
The divisions between small town and big city India have been broken down by liberalisation. I’m grateful for this…I do think people have a right to question how fast liberalisation is going and whether it’s damaging some sections of society. In the short term, India might lag China if we’re more introspective about our growth — but in the long term, we will surely outrun them. Those who interpret my novels as opposing liberalisation are misreading them. They’re marked by ambivalence, not opposition, to the changes… Money itself is amoral. It can liberate people as easily as it can destroy them. As I said, I’m not opposed to the great economic boom going on now. My role as a novelist is only to dramatize certain conflicts taking place because of the generation of so much new wealth. In “Last Man in Tower”, I urge people not to regard the developer simply as the villain, but to consider his positive attributes as well. Nor is Masterji, his opponent, a spokesman for me. He has his failings.
You were quoted as saying that art should be about slapping the middle class in the face. How did this conviction grow? Also, is this contradictory, considering much writing like yours is read by the middle class?
I have no desire to slap anyone in the face, believe me. The liberalism and tolerance of the Indian middle class give me strength to keep writing. Many of your readers must have bumped into me in a Landmark or Crossword bookstore in Mumbai or Bangalore as I spend a large part of my day browsing through books. Their reading tastes are the same as mine.
Your writing focuses on figures usually on the margins of Indian life — domestic servants, criminals, the poor. Do pretty drawing rooms, arranged marriages and the diaspora bore you?
No. In fact, this is the last novel set in contemporary Indian reality I plan to write. There is too much controversy and debate each time. My next novel is going to be about arranged marriages. First I’m going to have my own, and then I’m going to write about it.
Some took objection to the poverty, grime and crime in your first book. Did the hostile reception to “White Tiger” in India surprise you?
If selling 2,50,000 copies of a novel in India constitutes a hostile reception to that novel, I can only hope that the reception to “Last Man in Tower” will be even more hostile. People in India didn’t know me well in 2008. There was confusion as to who I was and where I lived. I should have made more of an effort to explain myself through the media. I am grateful for the support I received from readers here.
Which Indian writers excite you?
Many regard Professor UR Ananthamurthy as India’s greatest living novelist. If anyone has not read his novel “Samskara”, I urge them to do so. Ramachandra Guha writes very fine prose. I read his articles and books both for style and content.
You won the Booker Prize as a young writer with a first novel. Do expectations now worry you?
Whether I had won the Booker or not, I would be doing exactly what I’m doing now: waking up each day at six am to start writing. The three things that count in my life would still be my mother, my work and my mortality. Thinking of my mother reminds me of what is important in my life. My work fills my day. And my mortality reminds me time is limited and I should not waste it.
Your timing with Amitav Ghosh is fine-tuned; last time, with both your books nominated for the Booker, you won. With “Last Man In Tower” and “River of Smoke” out together now, can history repeat itself?
I have read Amitav Ghosh’s works for many years now. He brings great joy to people in this country and I wish his new book every success.
RK Narayan’s shadow is visible across the setting and characters of “Last Man in Tower”. How important is Narayan for you?
When I was young, there were very few Indians writing in English who were world-famous. RK Narayan was the most important one. He was not from a big city like Delhi or Mumbai. He was one of us, a man from a small town, Mysore. He never forgot his roots despite his fame. His writing was lucid but profound. I think “The Guide” is still the great Indian novel in English.
What should people expect from “Last Man In Tower”?
To be challenged — and entertained. I hope they’ll remember this is not a novel with any obvious message and there’s no clear hero in it, except for the city of Mumbai, which I love more than any other in the world.