Intertwining the stories of Aravind Adiga’s second book, Between the Assassinations, a self-described “novel in stories,” is the blandly anodyne voice of a travel guide writer introducing the visitor to Kittur, a city on the southwest Indian coast where the book is set. The cheerful pabulum of the travel guide’s spiel works as an ironic counterpoint to the boiling class resentment at the forefront of the stories. “After a lunch of prawn curry and rice at the Bunder, you may want to visit the Lighthouse Hill and its vicinity,” suggests our affable guide, but the person going to Lighthouse Hill in the accompanying story is a man arrested for having sold bootleg editions of The Satanic Verses and who consequently has his legs broken by the police.
The stark juxtaposition between sunny fantasy and sordid reality is one of the few rhetorical tools that Adiga has in his kit, and he puts it to frequent use. But in this case the canny device also allows him to explain the dizzying demographics of Kittur between 1984 and 1991 — that is, between the assassinations of Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. We learn that nearly ten languages are spoken in Kittur, and that the population is further stratified among Brahmins, Hoykas (members of the so-called “backward caste”), Dalits (formerly called Untouchables), Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Catholics, and sundry other religions.
Adiga gives us this information and makes a point throughout his stories of representing the full array of these faiths, castes, and classes — but then he does a striking thing. Rather than piece together a mosaic of a diverse city, he goes about reducing the distinctions to irrelevant labels. The supposed gulf between Hindus and Muslims? A journalist discovers that the riots between the two factions were instigated by the government in collusion with the mafia in a land grab for the looted property: “Muslim goons burned Muslim shops and Hindu goons burned Hindu shops. It was a real estate transaction masquerading as a religious riot.” The underdog unity and political action of Hoykas against the traditional oppression of their caste? Pure stagecraft ginned up by a few politicians eager to secure the votes of the masses. The assumed exceptionalism of the Brahmin caste? Meaningless to the embittered housemaid Jayamma, who’s stuck waiting on the spoiled son of a civil servant.
The Kittur we discover in Between the Assassinations turns out to be altogether homogenous — remorselessly so, because its binding features, and those overshadowing religion or caste, are greed and corruption.
That these unsavory qualities are fixations of Adiga’s will come as no surprise to anyone who read his crudely powerful debut, the 2008 Man-Booker Prize winner, The White Tiger. That novel seems at first glance little more than the half-deranged screed of a former chauffeur who kills his master and flees with 700,000 rupees of stolen money. Yet a full-throatedJ’accuse! emerges from the tirade — against Western-introduced materialism, human exploitation, and a culture dictated by the raw principles of capitalism, in which there are only two true castes: “Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies.” Adiga’s feat in The White Tiger is to make the rantings of a murderer seem unnervingly lucid, even persuasive.
Nearly all the characters in Between the Assassinations have their own rants to deliver as well. In the weakest stories, the complaints are venal and small: Jayamma curses the “lower caste” she has to work beside, or a petulant student avenges himself against a hated teacher (a couple of these stories are set in a boarding school — you sense that Adiga may have a grudge to exorcise).
When the anger finds more focus, however, the outcries are as potent as they are pointed. The crusading journalist incredulously sums up the fundamental injustice of the legal system when he says, “An innocent man is behind bars, and a guilty man walks free. Everyone knows that this is so and not one has the courage to change it.” In another strong story, Chennaya, an autorickshaw driver, is too low on the ladder to even have the luxury of voicing his protests out loud: “You have to attain a certain level of richness before you can complain about being poor.”
It’s in these protests, whether vocal or internalized, that Adiga’s penchant for stark juxtapositions makes a reappearance. As these characters engage in the full spectrum of corruption from petty grifting to political graft they also yearn to live more purely, with hope and idealism. A scene in which Chenayya defecates behind a bush provides a good example:
He looked up and took a deep breath. The sky is clean, he thought. There is purity up there. He tore off a few leaves, wiped himself clean with them, then rubbed his left hand against the earth in a bid to neutralize the smell.
Clearly, seekers of subtlety will be frustrated by Between the Assassinations. That title, a nod to Virginia Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts, is almost comically inappropriate given the chasm between the two styles of prose. Woolf is much like the bygone Indian poets Bharathi and Tagore, whom one of Adiga’s characters invokes as hidden sanctuaries of unspoiled beauty. But Adiga himself belongs to the scruffier (but no less passionate) lineage of Zola, Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair — the journalist-novelists. His writing is often ragged and repetitive, but it possesses a jackhammer force that makes it immediately arresting.
Adiga also displays a mordant, even mocking, sense of humor, but some of the wild edge of The White Tiger is absent here, replaced by notes of dejection and ambivalence. Adiga is now confronting the fate of an entire city, and though its inhabitants may rail and scheme against its culture of amoral greed, most eventually succumb to the status quo. A conspicuous number of these stories end with characters falling asleep, closing their eyes to the rottenness of their surroundings rather than rebelling against it.
I don’t know how far Adiga can fruitfully go with this tone of resignation (indeed, he may have already put it aside: versions of these stories were written before The White Tiger), but it inspires his saddest and most affecting piece of writing to date, the final story of Between the Assassinations. Murali, an aging member of the dwindling Communist Party, helps a begging widow receive government welfare. The widow has a daughter she despairs of marrying off, and with whom Murali falls in love. The feeling revives in him the idealism of his youth, when he wanted to be a great writer like Maupassant and a great social reformer spreading literacy in the countryside. Yet when he goes to declare his intentions he discovers that because the widow now has money, she scoffs at the thought of marrying her daughter to a poor factotum in an absurd political party. Of course, Murali recognizes, it is not the Communists who are laughingstocks to the average Indian so much as all idealists:
Marx had become mute. Dialectics had become Dust. So had Gandhi; so had Nehru. Out in the streets of Kittur, the young people were driving brand-new Suzuki cars, blaring pop music from the West; they were licking raspberry ice-cream cones with red tongues and wearing shiny metal watches.
He realizes that just as he helped put the widow on the dole, he can also cut off her flow of money and turn her back to begging — and back to seeking out a marriageable man who doesn’t want a dowry. It might be the credo of this rough, bracing book: the acceptance of avarice is the beginning of wisdom.