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Kai Ryssdal: The global economy looks pretty bleak right now. But there are a couple exceptions. India’s one of ’em. The World Bank says the Indian economy could grow by as much as 8% next year. That economy has been the backdrop for the stories of novelist Aravind Adiga. His first book, “The White Tiger,” was set in the 1990’s, when tech start-ups and international trade helped India really join the global economy. His latest book, a series of short stories called “Between the Assassinations,” goes back a couple of years earlier to a time when things weren’t really so robust. Good to have you with us.
Aravind Adiga: Thanks for having me on the program.
Ryssdal: The two assassinations, in the title of your book, 1984 Indira Gandhi and 1991 in Rajiv Gandhi assassination, why those two events as this sort of brackets of this time.
Adiga: Well, first of all I was born in 1974 and the first sort of political event I remember was the assassination of the prime minister in 1984. But this event was kind of important in another way because Indira Gandhi had been one of the creators of India, and she had increased the degree of centralized control over the economy of India to an extraordinary extent while she had been in charge, so that by 1984, India was a very centralized economy that was closed off to the world. We didn’t have Coca-Cola in India for instance. It was banned.
And when she died there was great national trauma, and also the prospect of opening up of that economy. And her son who became prime minister after her promised that he would install this new India. This was Rajiv Gandhi, but he failed to do so. And it was only after his death in 1991 that India finally opened up to the world.
Ryssdal: But it’s interesting because the characters in this book between ’84 and ’91, they are — many of them — ambitious and striving. They really want more than they can have at that instant.
Adiga: Yes, because this was a fact of life in the 1980s in India I think, which is India has always been open to information from outside — so we have the New York Times, we had the BBC, we had information coming from the world outside, and we knew there was so much out there. But the world we lived in was a closed-off, socialist world with very limited economic opportunities for us and this created a great deal of tension that is recorded in this book.
Ryssdal: This town that you created this book around, it’s a figment of your imagination obviously. But it somehow must represent all of India for you, no?
Adiga: Yes, that’s right. It was meant to be a microcosm of India in some way, a typical portrait of a small Indian town. The India I grew up in was the small-town India, which tends to not get much represented in cinema or in literature. But if you were a small-town boy from the south of India as I was, you would be puzzled by this idea that India was full of either very rich or very poor people because you wouldn’t see either around you. No one was really rich. But certainly you wouldn’t see slums or you wouldn’t see large masses of poor people either.
Ryssdal: Do those small towns play a big part in the Indian economy today?
Adiga: They are. This is the interesting fact. That is, they in the sense hold the key to India’s future because one of the odd things about India, unlike China, India has had a very low level of urbanization. Something like 60 percent of Indians, or perhaps even more, still live in villages. And the reason is there’s often no work in the big cities, nor is there anywhere for you to live. And so this creates large slums in the big cities. And for years economists have thought that the way to fix this problem has been to encourage the development of smaller towns in India. But you need a government that is conscious of this, the development of these kinds of smaller urban centers is really the key to a sustainable future for India.
Ryssdal: Do the differences in the Indian economic landscape, between the big cities and the smaller towns you’re talking about, how does that inform and affect your writing?
Adiga: I left India from a small town, and I came to university in the United States. And when I went back to India I went back to Delhi and now I live in Mumbai. And for the first time I lived in bigger cities, and in a sense I am much more conscious of how different the cities are from the towns I grew up in, because, you know, the economic disparities are so much harsher in the cities. But also there is a greater sense of excitement of the possibility of change. The main thing to understand about India is it’s such a diverse and such a complex culture, Indians are strangers to some aspects of their own country. It once again reminds you that India is something fascinating and exciting and something that comes alive.
Ryssdal: The most recent book by Aravind Adiga is called “Between the Assassinations.” Aravind, thank you so much for your time.
Adiga: Thank you for having me on.
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