By Aravind Adiga
Free Press. 339 pp. $24 nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Sandra Scofield
Aravind Adiga, who won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel,
The White Tiger
, did not face the sophomore challenge of what to write next. He had already completed
Between the Assassinations
, a collection of stories about the residents of the fictional town of Kittur on the southwestern coast of India.
On the blog the Daily Beast, he explains that he had been influenced by Balzac, whose works were a portrait of the France of his time. Adiga intended a set of stories about his hometown, Mangalore, but his initial sketches about middle-class Indians did not survive his return to India after a decade away. The scheme for a book changed radically when he visited numerous cities for his work as a journalist and was enthralled by the complex diversity of the poor majority.
In the last of 14 stories in Between the Assassinations, a lonely, radical communist, Murali, remembers that he once dreamed of becoming an Indian Maupassant.
"Back then, he had visited Salt Market Village every day for a week, jotting down painstakingly detailed descriptions of farmers, roosters, bulls, pigs, piglets, sewage, children's games, religious festivals, intending to juggle them into a series of short stories. . . ."
Adiga, a journalist, did something similar, interrogating a way of life he had not known growing up in an upper-caste Hindu community. It seems that he put everything he learned on the page.
Kittur, a muddle of castes, religions, and ethnicities, is a stand-in for the socialist India that existed in the period between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Except to set a time frame, the outside world doesn't impinge on Kittur. The stories take place on seven different days, but there is little to tie them to the chronology laid out in an appendix.
In what must surely be an homage to the great writer of the same region, R.K. Narayan, who famously said of his creation of the fictional village of Malgudi, "I first pictured not my town but just the railway station," Adiga opens his book with a description of Kittur's station.
A persistent village boy, Ziauddin, new in town, persuades a Hindu shopkeeper to hire him as a gofer for his teashop near the station, promising that because he is a Muslim, he doesn't do "hanky-panky."
The story turns out slight and ironic, like an O. Henry story, when a stranger plays on the boy's admiration for the great fighters of the north, the Pathans, trying to enlist him in terrorism.
The story is typical of the collection in that its central character has no options and slides away from hope after a false start. Protagonists live in stories without titles that open with names and descriptions of the town's points of interest.
In St. Alfonso's Boys' High School a half-caste boy sets off a bomb in a chemistry classroom and thinks his resentment is political action. He may be miserable, but he isn't hungry like the porters and beggars on the streets.
The scaffold for Between the Assassinations is made up of injustice, servility, impotence, and suppressed rage. It is constructed of incredibly dense details that make palpable the chaos and poverty of Kittur.
This is not the exoticism of saris, samosas, and arranged marriages. It is the abject hyper-realism of people trapped by their own births. Plot is mostly misadventure. Everyone wishes to be someone better, except Jayamma the cook, who just wants to go home and play with her nephew.
The repetition of the same pattern of relationships is sometimes wearying, but when a story enters the heart of a protagonist, it is powerful.
An experienced newspaper reporter, Gururaj, has his eyes opened to the underbelly of his town - the unreported awful truths. Unable to write or even edit lies anymore, he goes mad.
Ratna, a quack "sexologist" who sells sugar pills to sufferers of venereal disease, is drawn into the life of a frantic boy with a blackened penis who doesn't understand what's happening to him: "The boy turned, pressed his face into Ratna's collarbone, and burst into sobs; his lips rubbed against Ratna's clavicles and began sucking on them."
A factory owner who closes shop because the embroidery work is blinding the seamstresses is ridiculed by his peers and ultimately sees that his employees would rather work than be protected.
In one of the more subtle stories, George D'Souza, an eager mosquito-sprayer, works his way up to chauffeur for a pretty young woman, Mrs. Gomes, until a harmless but wrong gesture on his part undoes everything.
Adiga's stories do not add up to an overarching plot, but they do accrue to create a collage of Kittur. His conceit of a walking tour about the town provides a way to open his vignettes with descriptions and brief bits of history. The reader is tourist and witness. Kittur emerges as the real protagonist.
With Between the Assassinations, Adiga has written his portrait of the '80s in India. In The White Tiger, he tackled the '90s. He now lives in Mumbai, India, and is working on a new novel, also set in Kittur. Perhaps in it character will trump anthropology, and he will give us someone to know deeply, someone to remember.