This year’s Booker Prize winner takes us once again into a savage and cruel India.
In one of the stories of Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations, a book that follows his Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger but was apparently written before it, we see a quack sexologist, Ratnakara Shetty, on his way to the dargah to sell his goods. As he approaches the site he comes across the familiar Indian melee of pathetic supplicants—beggars, lepers, the handicapped, including one especially grotesque specimen with a stump of a leg and “little brown stubs like a seal’s flippers” for arms. Ratnakara Shetty leaves behind this “sorrowful parade of humanity” and walks on. Soon he is surrounded by yet another group that throbs with pain and despair: those afflicted by venereal disease.
Ratnakara Shetty’s story appears late enough in Adiga’s book for us to realize that Shetty himself is part of a “sorrowful parade of humanity” of protagonists, all of whom are denizens of Kittur, a fictional south Indian town. The two assassinations of the (striking and attractive) title are those of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv in 1991, and the book is an intense examination—indeed an interrogation—of a small Indian town of the 1980s: its languages, its mores, its diversity of caste, class and religion, and the many hierarchies within and between them, its white and black economies, the way its geography reveals its history, and the human encounters and non-encounters that determine the texture of its everyday life.
On a map of India Kittur would only be a finger-joint away from R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, but the savagery of Adiga’s material and his slashing style make for an atmosphere worlds away from the older writer’s gentler ironies and greater tolerance for life’s injustices. Adiga’s great theme is power relations—between rich and poor, master and servant, high caste and low caste, majority and minority—and, as a consequence of these relations, moral perversion and subaltern rage.
All but a couple of the stories in his book are mounted on this kind of tableau of social and economic injustice, and draw their energy from its tensions. A recurring gesture in them is one person bowing before another with folded hands, feeding the power and arrogance of another with servility so as to stay afloat. Adiga’s protagonists differ from each other on the scale of their reactions to a callous and perverted system. The stories dramatize a range of responses from resigned acceptance to, even complicity with, the established order, to seething impotence and maddening rage.
Some of the stories, particularly those in the first half of the book, work very well because of the depth of Adiga’s characterization of both person and place (and Kittur is the real protagonist of his work). Adiga’s grasp of the contours of the world he is mapping seems much surer here than in The White Tiger, which posited a facile binary vision of “the Light” and “the Darkness” in 21st century India. An attractive feature of his work is the verbal tics he gives to his characters, as if to suggest that where human relations are out of joint, language too must always keep fumbling for meaning.
Ziauddin, the small, dark, chubby tea shop boy of the opening story, is always declaring his virtue and protesting his innocence in an adult world that both bullies him and laughs at him. At the bottom of Kittur’s social scale, he keeps having to insist that Muslims “don’t do hanky-panky”, and whenever someone misbehaves with him he uses exactly the same words to rebuke them. Mr Lasrado, an ineffectual teacher in a boy’s school, cannot pronounce “f”, and keeps addressing the other Jesuits as “Pather”. When the boys engineer a small explosion in his class, Lasrado’s rage has its sting drawn out by his cry of “You Puckers! Puckers!”
As is evident from these examples, Adiga’s style unites anger with incapacity, with grotesquerie. On several occasions, his characters are compared to animals, from the prisoner who leads his captors by the handcuffs, “like a fellow taking two monkeys on a walk”, to a prospective groom who is so deferential he seems “more the family’s domestic pet than the scion”. The story about Ratnakara Shetty burns with images of male genitals blackened, withered, gnawed away by disease. All these seem physical symbols of a universe in which so much is wrong, and yet the view from the top is that nothing is.
The cogency of Adiga’s anger is only weakened, even cheapened, by repetition. As his book proceeds, and we repeatedly encounter the moral crudeness of the rich and powerful (“In this life, a man is always a servant of his servants”) and the bitterness of the poor and marginalized, the contingency and the tension of conflicts between characters hardens into a position and a politics that seem the work of the narrator; a chisel swells into a cudgel.
Even so, Between the Assassinations has a genuinely distinctive world view and many exciting passages. In a way, the best sections of this book, with their wealth of anthropological detail and careful peeling back of the lives of characters, might also be held up as the most lucid criticism of Adiga’s own book The White Tiger, with its hollow protagonist, shoddily constructed plot, and banal commentary. Indeed, Between The Assassinations might be read as an indictment not only of the distorted nature of Indian reality but also of contemporary publishing, which jumped so eagerly at Adiga’s other book but allowed this much worthier sibling to languish for so long.
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