I will begin with a confession: I have not read White Tiger, the novel that catapulted Aravind Adiga to international fame and made him the cynosure of the literati. I am usually terribly behind the times when it comes to new releases, often picking them up no earlier than a couple of years after the initial hue and cry has died down, leaving me free to experience the work without the suffocating crush of public opinion. So I am not coming to his next work, a collection of stories called Between the Assassinations, with any unusual biases, either for or against, although I am aware of one strand of critical response that views White Tiger as decidedly unIndian. In fact, the response to Adiga’s novel parallels the Indian response to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire: that both the film and the novel offer just another Western stereotype of India as the home of the wretched of the earth. In the West, however, the novel (and SlumDog) was praised for portraying not a stereotype but rather “a different aspect of India.” ((One interesting review of White Tiger is by Amitava Kumar — check it out in The Hindu’s book review page.)
My most immediate gripe about Between the Assassinations is that its title bears very little relation to what is between its covers (a point also made by a reviewer for The Financial Times). The “assassinations” the title refers to are the assassinations of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and of her son Rajiv in 1991. Neither the assassinations themselves nor events related to the assassinations feature in the book. Instead, there is just a passing reference to Mrs. Gandhi in one of the chapters and a brief lament about how the country has gone to hell following her demise. Perhaps that is a pedantic objection. But it points to a flaw in the overall execution of the work and suggests a lack or absence of a thematic unity to the stories themselves.
What I will grant to Adiga is that he has a real talent for spinning a yarn, for foregrounding marginal social elements and giving them centre stage, for sketching scenes rich in local colour, and for creating attention-grabbing dialogue — and all in a simple, even if vulgarly comedic, style. Book piracy, ubiquitous in all corners of India through the piles of pirated books sold on the footpath, comes to life through the story of Xerox, the bookseller; the rage of the lower castes is depicted through the eyes of Shankara, who fantasizes about exploding a bomb in the classroom of a local Jesuit-run school; there is the story of D’Mello, the cane-wielding assistant headmaster; Gururaj, the journalist who goes mad; and several other tales featuring a cast of characters who inhabit the margins of Indian society: lepers, amputees, drug peddlers, drunks, half-castes, lower caste Hoykas, pornographers, labourers, house servants, communists, gurkhas, and Muslim refugees. Its motley collection of characters does not fail to entertain.
In many ways, Adiga’s humorous sketches of the struggles of the lower classes and castes recall the tales spun by V.S. Naipaul decades ago in early volumes such as Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas, the main difference being that Adiga has exchanged Port of Spain, Trinidad, and its gallery of impractical, eccentric dreamers for the coastal town of Kittur, located between Goa and Calicut on India’s southwest coast. And through the bewildering hysteria and chaos of a life lived on the margins, a picture emerges across Adiga’s 12 tales of the desperate struggles of the poor, the illiterate, the destitute, the oppressed, the fanatical, and delusional residents of Kittur against a backdrop of discrimination, caste wars, religious division, and general oppression. Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Kshatryias, Hoykas, and Catholics struggle in comic ways to exist side by side in this small town, resenting and hating one another, but getting by all the same.
One reviewer has commented about White Tiger that “it reads at a tremendous clip.” The same can be said about Between the Assassinations. The stories are packed with action, intrigue, plotting, and event. They protest loudly and stridently the inequities of caste, class, and power in contemporary Indian society. But I emerged from the experience with my head in a whirl, not sure what to make of the loud cacophony that remained with me in the end.