NEW DELHI: Feuds over property and deadly clashes over land are as much a part of India’s economic rise as call centres and the foreign acquisitions made by its leading companies.
The background of millions of personal struggles between the forces of economic development and those clinging to their homes has been taken up by one of India’s brightest young literary talents in his second novel.
Aravind Adiga, whose debut novel “The White Tiger” won the Booker prize in 2008, sets his new book in a scruffy tower block in his adopted home of Mumbai, a swirling mass of 16 million people, slums, apartment buildings and Bollywood.
The plot revolves around the battle between a hard-nosed property magnate, who wants to knock down the cooperative housing tower to build a new luxury development, and a minority of older residents who resist his lucrative offer.
“It poses some very fundamental questions about democracy in India. I tend to side with the person who refuses to take the money, but he’s frustrating the aims of the other people,” Adiga told AFP in an interview.
“This stuck me as crucial not just to Mumbai, but everything that is happening in India,” he added ahead of the launch of the book, titled “Last Man in Tower”, in his homeland.
Fights over land
Land acquisition has emerged as one of the biggest political issues in India and a pressing economic problem as companies and governments consistently clash with protesters over large development projects.
Car company Tata Motors abandoned a proposed factory in 2008 in the face of demonstrations by farmers and the country’s biggest foreign direct investment project, by South Korean steelmaker Posco, has been stalled for six years.
Last month, several farmers died in a protest over compensation for land acquired to build a new highway linking New Delhi and the Taj Mahal city of Agra, the latest fatalities in a long-running dispute.
“These issues come up anywhere in the world where you’re having a new road built or a new stadium,” said Adiga, who was the New Delhi-based correspondent for Time magazine before turning to fiction.
“In India it’s more visceral because it’s for the most part a developing country. For a man to say ‘no’ to a large sum of money strikes me as an extraordinary thing.”
And millions of farmers in overcrowded India are adamant they will not move from their ancestral property in the name of industrialisation.
An ‘unsentimental’ view
Adiga’s second novel is a more complex undertaking than the punchy White Tiger and again demonstrates his role as a unique chronicler of contemporary India at a time of wrenching change.
It returns to some of the themes that propelled him to fame, including his savage take on the new middle class and his brutally frank descriptions of the grime and deprivation that characterise much of the country.
“Some novels that come out of India tend to be sentimental in their outlook on life,” added Adiga, 36. “They (his characters) are figures that I see around me.”
What he sees around him has earned him millions of fans — as well as an army of critics who objected to White Tiger’s mockery of the optimistic national narrative of a new “Shining India” and emerging superpower.
Instead, it shone a deeply unflattering light on poverty, inter-caste tension and the country’s economic inferiority to neighbouring China.
“I am entirely aware that if I had written this book in Pakistan or Sri Lanka or any neighbouring country I’d be in jail,” he said. “I’m very grateful that I live in India that is liberal and tolerant.
“Some people were clearly upset (about White Tiger), but India is one of the few places on earth where you can publish a book like this and you don’t have to worry about anything other than being mobbed in a bookstore.”
Throughout the interview he emphasises that he is personally undecided about India’s current trajectory.
He admits admiration for the hugely wealthy yet morally bankrupt property developer in Last Man In Tower, arch-capitalist Dharmen Shah, who like all the characters has evident flaws but clear human qualities.
“I wonder if this amoral energy (which Shah possesses) is what it takes to start a new nation,” Adiga said. “I also wonder if it will drive us into chaos.”