My review of Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations
Posted On Friday, July 17, 2009
My review of Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assasinations appeared in The Guardian on July 11, 2009. Here it is: Caste away Aravind Adiga's short stories take us where other writers fear to tread, says Vikas Swarup Saturday 11 July 2009 In one of the stories in Between the Assassinations, Aravind Adiga's collection written in parallel with his Booker-winning The White Tiger, Murali, a young communist and short-story writer, is told by his editor: "There is talent in your writing. You have gone into the countryside and seen life there, unlike ninety per cent of our writers." Adiga, too, has boldly gone where few Indian writers choose to venture, casting his gaze beyond the complacent smugness of middle-class drawing rooms to the anger and squalor lurking in the underbelly of urban India. Kittur, the fictional coastal town "between Goa and Calicut" which serves as the backdrop to these linked stories, is said to have 193,432 residents. Adiga's cast is limited, but his tableau covers a wide social and economic spectrum. We meet upper-caste bankers and lower-caste rickshaw pullers, Muslim tea boys and Christian headmasters, capitalist factory owners and communist sidekicks. Adiga gives a human face to each of these characters. The book opens with the story of Ziauddin, one of "those lean lonely men with vivid eyes who haunt every train station in India". Then there is Ramakrishna "Xerox", who has been arrested 21 times for selling illegally photocopied books to students; Shankara, the mixed-caste Brahmin-Hoyka student, who sets off a bomb in a Jesuit school; Abbasi, the idealistic shirt factory owner, who offers drinks laced with his own shit to corrupt government officials; Mr D'Mello, an assistant headmaster with "an excessive penchant for old-fashioned violence"; Ratnakara Shetty, the fake sexologist, who sets out to find a cure for a young boy with venereal disease; the Raos, a childless couple who seek refuge within their own circle of "intimates"; Keshava, the village boy who aspires to become a bus conductor; Gururaj Kamath, the newspaper columnist who incessantly "looks for the truth"; Chenayya, the cycle-cart puller who "could not respect a man in whom there was no rebellion"; Soumya and Raju, the beggar children on a mission to buy smack for their drug-addict father; Jayamma, the spinster who seeks comfort in DDT fumes; George D'Souza, a "bitter man" struggling to establish "the proper radius between mistress and servant"; and Murali, the communist who writes short stories about "people who want nothing". Each of the stories begins with a short touristy description of some section of the town, replete with anthropological detail; the anodyne blandness of the travel guide throws into relief the clutter and chaos of smalltown life, where "a subaltern army of semen, blood and flesh" jostles to survive. The title refers to the period between the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi and the killing in 1991 of her son, Rajiv Gandhi. But the 14 stories bookended by these two milestones could easily have been set in present-day India for, as one of the characters says, "nothing ever changes. Nothing will ever change." As in The White Tiger, Adiga is concerned with issues of injustice and poverty, and these fluid, flickering stories are as far removed from the gentle ironies of RK Narayan's short fiction as Kittur is from Malgudi. What emerges is not so much a moral biography of an Indian town as the autopsy of a morally dead town. The poor, whose life is an "instalment plan of troubles and horrors", are waiting "to strike a blow against the world", while the rich decry their own existence "in the midst of chaos and corruption". The mordant wit of The White Tiger is more subdued here, but the humanity is intact; the characters are all conflicted and alienated in one way or another, grappling with their inner demons, seething or scheming. In unsentimental, utilitarian prose, Adiga fleshes out their quirks and contradictions and maps their aspirations and anxieties. There are moments of startling insight, such as when George D'Souza ruminates that his "life consisted of things that had not yet said yes to him, and things that he could not say no to". Or when Murali realises "the greatest fallacy: that you can hide from others what you want from them". But by and large the stories follow a Chekhovian pattern. Characters have deeply felt longings but must accept that life will not change, and the inevitable has to be endured. There are small epiphanies and fragmentary moments of illumination, but no redemption, as they realise that "there is no one coming to release us from the jail in which we have locked ourselves". As a conscientious exploration of the microcosm of India and as vignettes of town life, the individual chapters work well, but as short stories they are a mixed bag. Some, such as the story of the assistant headmaster trying to keep his favourite student away from a pornographic theatre, or that of the gardener ogling his mistress, with its undercurrent of sexual tension, are pitch-perfect. Others, such as those relating to the beggar children and the cycle-cart puller, are a touch earnest. The tale of the crusading journalist descends into the bizarre, while that of the sexologist ends too abruptly. These are stories, to borrow a line from the book, "at once vague and full of substance, half-obscure but all too present". Their core will serve to remind us of the work that needs to be done to heal the faultlines of caste and class and bridge the gap between master and servant, rich and poor. Meanwhile, as Narayan told VS Naipaul in 1961, India will go on. • Vikas Swarup's Q&A (Black Swan) was filmed as Slumdog Millionaire.