As a worthy follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga has shaped a collection of evocative short stories into a kind of novelistic portrait of modern India. Between the Assassinations—its title refers to the political murders of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv in 1991, which supply the time parameters for the stories—is set in a small city called Kittur, on the Malabar Coast, in the southern part of the subcontinent. Using the conceit of a six-day tour of the city as a framing device, Adiga introduces a kaleidoscopic array of characters from all walks of life, and their individual stories speak to the complexities of an Indian society defined by caste, religion, endemic corruption and the great chasm between wealth and poverty.
While the subtleties of Indian social classes and subclasses may be lost on most Western readers, Adiga manages to convey the way these hair-fine distinctions define and control an individual’s destiny. Thoreau’s remark about most men leading lives of quiet desperation is never far from mind as we read about the daily lives of Kittur’s colorful denizens—be they a comical schoolmaster, an ambitious homeless boy or a disillusioned journalist. And yet, for all the misery and want in these people’s daily existences, the stories still brim with a wry, fatalistic humor that keeps them from tipping over the brink of total hopelessness.
The stories connect only at the most fleeting of junctures, mostly coincidences of places in the teeming city where the classes mingle, such as the commercial district on Umbrella Street, the wealthy enclave of Rose Lane or the adult movie house, “Angel Talkies.” Some of the stories have children at their center: a Muslim boy who runs errands for a teashop briefly falls under the dangerous sway of a foreigner who treats him with respect, the half-caste son of a wealthy Brahmin doctor and his Hoyka wife sets off an explosive at his Jesuit school in an undisguised effort to exert his confused identity, a young girl and her little brother travel across the city to secure some heroin for their addict father. At the other end of the age spectrum, an older Brahmin woman, forced to work as a maid because her family never had the dowry needed for her to marry, perpetrates a small, unnoticed (and quite poignant) act of defiance against her oppressors. A 55-year-old Communist questions everything about the life he has given over to the relentless pursuit of social equality when he is spurned by a young girl whom he believes he is helping.
In a central story—which first appeared in The New Yorker as “The Elephant”—Chenayya, a young man who earns a few rupees a day delivering back-breaking items with his cycle-cart, asks, “Don’t you see that something is wrong with this world . . . When an elephant gets to lounge downhill doing virtually no work at all, and a human being has to pull such a heavy cart?” This question of inequity, this casual disregard for human life, is at the heart of everyday existence in Kittur (and, by implication, India). Even the rich and educated have their quotidian gripes and allow petty social conventions and hidebound traditions to dictate the way they live. It is a world where it is nearly impossible to move beyond the life prescribed for you at birth. “Maybe if she sinned enough in this life, she would be sent back as a Christian in the next one,” ponders the browbeaten Brahmin maid, who, like all the citizens in this collection of stories, accepts her fate with a resignation that can be frustrating for an American reader reared on Horatio Alger myths and hard pressed to imagine what it would be like to be dealt such a irrevocable fate.
Yet Adiga’s uncompromising gifts as a writer do open a window for us and help us understand what life is like in such an economically skewed society. Not for a moment do we question whether Adiga is being honest about his native land. There is nothing in these stories that seems exaggerated for dramatic purposes; every character rings true, his or her dilemma, while specific to time and place, is driven by recognizable, universal human reactions. Like Mahfouz’s Cairo or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Adiga’s Kittur distills a complex emotional world into an unforgettable microcosm. With Between the Assassinations this young Indian writer solidifies his reputation as a major new talent on the world’s literary stage.