Book Review: Between the Assassinations

by Zafar Anjum

Between the assassinationsBetween the Assassinations
by Aravind Adiga
Picador, 2009

When I finished reading the last story from Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations, I was briefly filled with sadness. This was the book I was reading for the past several weeks. I had been dipping in and out of Kittur, sharing the anger and sorrows, hopes and joys of its various inhabitants. Adiga’s imaginary town and its curious inhabitants had kept me enthralled for days on end. I read the book whenever time (and my daughter) allowed me to enter its world: on the way to office, during lunch break, watching over my daughter in the playground or before going to bed.

As I read the last page of the novel (or collection of short stories or does it matter?), I had to say good bye to the people of Kittur, without hoping to know what would happen to them next. In the last story Salt Market Village, Murali the communist and one-time story writer, gets up from the bed with a jerk at the end of the story. What will happen to him? Will he find a bride and happiness, at the end of a wasted life? Will Ratnakar Shetty, the fake sexologist, be able to collect enough dowry to see his daughters married off (The Sultan’s Battery)? Will the mosquito man cum driver George and his sister Maria find shelter in the unfinished cathedral, a symbol of their incomplete, hopeless lives (The Cathedral of our Lady of Valencia)? Will Gururaj, journalist and truth seeker, get back his sanity (Angel Talkies)? There are far too many characters to enlist here. But I cared about most of them. Because they spoke to me.

I spent some time with these characters, on the pages of this wonderful book, and they seemed to me so real that I began to worry about them.

Honestly, I had felt this way after a long time. Maybe I had felt this way after reading the stories of Manto and Krishen Chander (in Urdu) but that was more than a decade ago. I had read many short story collections in the past few months and years: Kunal Basu’s My Japanese Wife, Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, John Cheever’s Collected Stories, just to mention a few (not counting the innumerable stories well-crafted pieces in The New Yorker and The Paris Review). Even Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Melodies. They were touching, they were literary, some stories were even fluffy and velvety. But none had an impact on me the same way that Between the Assassinations had.

On a different level, perhaps strangely, my reaction to the book reminded me of my reaction to Homicide. I had felt sad after having finished watching the entire series of Homicide (on DVD). The stories, the characters, their dilemmas and tribulations, get into the rhythm of your life, you begin to care about them. That was a series. This was a book. Yet I felt affected in a similar way. I was going to miss something. Even though temporarily, it was going to happen. There is a beautiful word in Urdu, khalish, to describe this emotion. I know I am going to feel this khalish, this ache, at least for sometime.

Why is it so? What kind of stories does Adiga tells in this book? Who are these characters that affect me so much?

Most of the characters in the novel come from the margins of society, well, some kind of margin. Low caste, high caste, rich, poor, Hindu, Muslim, Christian—all with their own set of issues, problems, limitations and horrors.

What’s so new about them, one might ask. That’s true. There is nothing new about them. Perhaps these characters have existed in India’s rich vernacular literature for decades but their avatar in Indian writing in English is what’s new. Perhaps we had seen them in some form earlier, in towns such as Malgudi. But in the wake of big advances and biger hype, they had stopped walking our book’s pages.

In the past, when Indian writers like Khushwant Singh (The Mark of Vishnu) or K A Abbas attempted to describe the life of the poor and the dispossessed, their views and voices often came from an exalted position (that’s my impression). Their intimacy with the subject seemed to be contrived (Moreover between then and now, circumstances in India have changed).

Not in Adiga’s case. It is the sensibility, the intimate approach with which Adiga unravels his characters and lets us peep into their inner world—of their thoughts, hopes and humiliations—that makes us feel for the characters. There is an economy in his style which is subservient to a generous vision. Whether you read about the humiliations of a low caste student or a high caste cook, Adiga takes you so close to their skin that you feel you had made a journey into their soul. That too in a language that can look deceptively simple but in fact is rich, masculine and powerful.

How many contemporary novelists or story writers can make us feel this way? Beneath their velvety language, all you might find empty notions of how the lives of others could be. Or painstaking research and history couched in beautiful language. That style has its own uses but let us not go there. In Adiga’s case, you find the real dirt of India, the ugliness of life and society that thwarts the aspirations of millions of Indians. Adiga speaks for them. He had given voice to India’s poor and voiceless but with a dignity that is often denied to them.

Adiga’s language is measured, masculine and powerful. He does not dwell on much description, keeps a sufficiently fast pace for the stories but once in a while his eye catches something (in the background) else and he goes after it. There are many examples:

“Even at this hour of the night, work was still going on. He heard a low, continuous sound, as if it were the audible respiration of the night world: an open-back truck was collecting mud, probably for some construction site. The driver was asleep at the wheel, and his arm was sticking out of one window, and his feet out the other one; as if ghosts were doing the work, morsels of mud came flying into the truck from behind…” (Angel Talkies).

“A dozen women in colourful saris, each with a green or mauve bandana around her head, were cutting the grass from the sides of the road. Swaying in concert as they sang strange Tamil songs, the migrant workers were down in the gutters, where they scraped the moss, and pulled the weeds out from between the stones with violent tugs, while others scooped out handfuls of black gunk from the bottom of the gutters, which they heaped up in dripping mounds.” (The Cathedral of our Lady of Valencia)

What kind of stories are these? Let me reference it to the last story in the book, Salt Market Village. Murali, a Brahmin and a graduate of Madras University, used to write stories (but never got published) before he abandoned them and became a card carrying member of the Communist Part of India (Marxist-Maoist), Kittur. He is in his 50s now but twenty five years ago, he used to roam the villages with a notepad, dreaming of becoming an Indian Maupassant. He sent his compilation of stories under a nom de plume—‘The Seeker of Justice’—to the editor of a weekly magazine in Mysore. A week later, the editor summons him for an interview.

The editor asks him who his favourite writer is? Maupassant, after Karl Marx, he replies.

“Let’s stick to literature,” the editor retorted. “Every character in Maupassant is like this…” he bent his index finger, and wiggled it. “He wants, and wants, and wants. To the last days of his life, he wants. Money. Women. Fame. More women. More money. More fame. Your characters—“ he unbent his finger “want absolutely nothing. They simply walk though accurately described village settings, and have deep thought….That’s it.”

“They do have thought of changing the world for the better…” Murali protested. “They desire a better society.”

“They want nothing!” the editor shouted. “I can’t print stories of people who want nothing!”

He threw the bundle of short stories back at Murali.

Perhaps the bundle was picked up by Adiga. And daringly, he rewrote those stories and sent them for publication. The result is a pounding piece of harmonized anger, a precise and humane account of people, whose small truths make a staggering reality that is India today. But unfortunately an India that is rarely written about, its unglamorous existence not considered being worthy of a mention. India’s middle class is so huge and so hued that in itself it constitutes a world and its mirror—and most of the IWE caters to the problems and hopes of this narcissistic class of people. Arvind Adiga is a chronicler of the world that is beyond the pale of this self-consumed middle class.

But the book is not without its weak moments. All the stories are not that sparkling. The Cool-Water Well Junction is reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire (nothing extraordinary here), the story of Jayamma in Valencia (To the first Cross) is predictable in its conclusion, the point of the story Bajpe is lost on me, Ziauddin in The Train Station seems to be a confused character.

Despite these flawed tales, Adiga’s Kittur is a fascinating town with charming people. People who want something in life. There is a drive in these stories’ characters that one can’t resist. Maybe Kittur is the new Malgudi.

There are very few books that I become attached too. Very very few. I can count them on my fingers. Between the Assassinations has joined that rank. It can gladly stay on my shelf, next to Manto, Krishen Chander, Naipaul, Kafka and Carver.