Earning his stripes In the months since Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize with his debut novel, The White Tiger, he has not been easy to track down. A scheduled face-to-face interview in London is cancelled; before I know it, he has packed his bags, pocketed his GBP50,000 (HK$567,000) prize money and returned to Mumbai. In the following days, as rumours circulate that he has fired his agent, a second interview is postponed. Adiga says he has some 'stuff' to sort out. So when I finally corner the elusive literary sensation it seems gloriously incongruous to find him on a beach, ready and willing to chat. Clearly a combination of home and sun-worshipping does wonders for a weary Booker winner. 'Being in Mumbai is incredibly helpful because you are very grounded,' Adiga says. 'There are about 500 people on the beach and nobody gives a s***. When I went out in England people would recognise me. People here are going about the business of daily life. They worry about water, about housing. In India, everything is put in perspective. I'm hoping that perspective will keep me on an even keel and will keep me writing.' The most even of keels, however, cannot prevent every capsize: after an hour's cordial discussion about everything from fame to the future, literary influences to the state of contemporary India, he greets an innocuous inquiry about his current life ('Are you married or are you single?') with all the warmth of a frozen dinner. 'This has to be the last question,' Adiga says. 'This is where it ends. I'm happy to answer questions about the book. But I'd rather not say any more.' Those hoping he will bear his soul like Balram, the garrulous hero of The White Tiger, will have to wait. Nor will it happen at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in March, Adiga having declined the annual Booker winner's invitation. In many respects, Adiga's defensiveness is understandable. Few find a rapid transition from obscurity to fame easy, and writers, who spend much of their lives in solitary confinement, probably find it harder than most. Take 'agent-gate'. Before the Booker Prize this would have existed as minor industry gossip only. After his victory, it made headlines across the world depicting Adiga as an ingrate whose swollen head had already been turned by success and financial triumph. It turns out the story was a year or so out of date. 'I left my last agency in November 2007. My agent was never the woman who spoke to the journalist,' he says. 'A very junior person said something incorrect. The press didn't bother contacting me because I live in Mumbai.' Now represented by David Goodwin (who also looks after Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy), Adiga says the story wouldn't have bothered him at all if it hadn't been recycled by Indian newspapers. 'The British press is of no concern to me because I live in Mumbai. The Indian media spends half its time attacking the British colonial masters who left them 61 years ago, and the other half faithfully copying stories from the English gutter press,' he says. A journalist by profession, Adiga, 34, knows the fuss will soon blow over. 'I am realistic enough to know I'm small fry,' he says. He is also aware that 'squelching' rumours about agents is a mere distraction from the main event: becoming the fourth Indian writer to win the Booker (after Roy, Desai and Salman Rushdie). 'Rushdie was the turning point,' Adiga says of Midnight's Children's victory in 1981. 'The epochal win for Indian-born writers.' No matter how arduous the aftermath - 'I would be having a lot more fun if I hadn't won' - Adiga derives great satisfaction from his unexpected feat. 'Every writer dreams of winning. So did I. But actually winning never seemed possible. Being long-listed was something I thought was realistic, but every step beyond seemed impossible.' Adiga identifies waiting for the long list as the most taxing period of his Man Booker marathon. 'As a first-time novelist you don't know if you're going to make it or not. There are hundreds of novels put out in the year. Once I was nominated, there was just a profound sense of relief and happiness.' Once again, living in India helped diffuse the nerves. 'Unless you win, it doesn't really register here so you are kind of left alone. The process wasn't too taxing until I won.' Adiga admits he was surprised to win, not only because The White Tiger was his first book but because it wasn't written to ingratiate itself with its readers. 'It was meant to provoke. It was not meant to be bed-time reading.' A wickedly satirical rags to riches story, the novel is a confession (dictated to Premier Wen Jiabao) dressed in autobiography's clothing. Our anti-hero is Balram, born into the poorest section of Indian society ('the darkness'). Through luck, intelligence and cunning he becomes a driver for a wealthy Delhi family. Balram wins his freedom through an act of the darkest violence and eventually reinvents himself as a successful entrepreneur. The story emerged gradually from Adiga's experiences. Born in southern India to middle-class parents, he moved to Australia at 16 after the death of his mother. 'It was difficult,' he says. 'I didn't leave out of choice. My mother had passed away. I was kind of alone. I was just with my father. I didn't enjoy my schooling too much. My problems were more internal than external.' After two and a half years Adiga followed his brother's lead and went to New York to study literature at Columbia University. After further study at Oxford, Adiga chose journalism over academia and returned to India. '[Journalism] forced me to take seriously a whole class of people who had been present when I was growing up - servants, chauffeurs, nightwatchmen - but who are almost like automata for many middle-class Indians.' Adiga found himself discussing politics, economics and life in general with this 'underclass' of invisible Indians. Slowly the character of Balram began to form. 'This voice that you hear of these poorer men as you travel India is so compelling, so quirky and so funny. And in some ways so disturbing. It summons itself, you know? It forces you to write about it. If I had to write honestly about the most interesting people I meet, I would pick someone like Balram.' Adiga intended Balram's combination of humour, amorality and violence to challenge sentimental depictions of the poor as sympathetic weaklings in Indian cinema and fiction. He says the two privileges accorded middle-class characters in Indian literature that are denied to the poor are a sense of humour and the capacity for vice. 'They are fundamental aspects of their humanity. It was important that Balram, though poor, had both privileges - he is funny and has the right to make evil choices.' Whether The White Tiger can change Indian society for the better, as Adiga hopes, seems optimistic. Perhaps a more attainable goal is to 'stir a debate' that encourages Indian society to face up to the state of its 21st-century nation. 'Everyone now in India, poor or not, has the same dreams: to control their lives and get rich quickly. I want Indian readers to realise that unless the poor are given the infrastructure to achieve their dreams they will have few options except crime to achieve their goals.' Adiga's goals include riding the crest of The White Tiger's wave and publishing a collection of short stories. Written during several years, the 15 stories are set in a period covering the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Ghandi and take place in a single Indian town. 'Sometimes a small Indian town has the ethnic complexity of all Europe, but without the political system constantly trying to reorder and homogenise. So you have this mind-boggling array of castes, religions and classes living side by side. The stories are about those people and the moral decisions they must make.' There is also a novel Adiga has been working on for about a year. 'I write completely alone and don't show my work to anyone until done. The danger is it could be pretty bad and I wouldn't know. We will have to keep our fingers crossed.'