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Adiga's India, Through A Literary Kaleidoscope

Jul 18, 2009 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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'Between the Assassinations' cover

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Author Aravind Adiga says that earning the 2008 Booker Prize — one of the literary world's biggest awards — for his first novel, The White Tiger, was a great honor, but it didn't dramatically alter his life as a writer.

"I'm still stuck in my flat in Mumbai, trying to write. Let me tell you, it doesn't get any easier to write, just because you've won the Booker," he tells Scott Simon.

Even so, Adiga managed to produce a follow-up to his lauded first novel. Between the Assassinations is a collection of short stories that take place in the fictional south Indian town of Kittur. Set in the years 1984-1991 and book-ended by the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, the stories present what Adiga calls "the cross-section of life in an Indian town."

The book, which includes characters from an array of castes, religions and classes, chronicles the lives of Kittur's richest inhabitants as well as its poorest. One story features a girl, Soumya, who begs on the street for money to fund her beloved father's drug addiction, a narrative that grew from Adiga's reporting on widespread drug abuse among India's poor.

Adiga's journalistic work has appeared in The Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Magazine, but he sees reporting and fiction-writing as distinctly separate endeavors.

"Journalism is a way of gathering material for the fiction I would like to write, but, fundamentally, the skills are antithetical," says Adiga.

Journalism is designed to be clear, comprehensive and communicative, Adiga says, whereas novelistic writing has to be more opaque.

"What you want to do as a novelist is raise questions rather than give answers, because what you really want as a writer of fiction is to be taken seriously and to be read and to be debated," Adiga says. "If you make the message clear, as it were, you fail in this, because then people think they know what your book is about, and they don't have to talk about it once it's done."

In some ways, the division Adiga sees between fiction writing and journalism parallels the predicament he says one of his relatives faced. One of his uncles "wanted to be a Communist and a writer," Adiga says, "and he had always felt that these two impulses clashed, because being a Communist — being an idealist — asks you to see the best in human beings, and being a writer often asks you to see the worst in them."

Adiga based the character of Murali — in "Salt Market Village," the last story in the book — on this uncle. Murali, a Communist and aspiring writer, personifies recent developments in India as a whole.

"This final story of the idealistic Communist who has a crisis late in his life is also the story of the India of the 1980s, where the old socialist system was finally cracking up and something new — which was the new capitalist India — was on its way," Adiga says.

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