Ratnakara Shetty’s story appears late enough in Adiga’s book for us to realise 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 nineteen-eighties: its languages, its mores, its diversity of castes, classes, and religions 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 RK 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 main theme, one at which he hacks away relentlessly, is power relations – between rich and poor, master and servant, high-caste and low-caste, majority and minority, even haughty English and the low vernacular – 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, hold on to one’s precarious place in the whole. Adiga’s protagonists differ from each other on the scale of their reactions to a callous and perverted system. The stories dramatise 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 of the first half of the book, work very well because of the depth of Adiga’s characterisation of not just persons but place (several short interludes between the stories explore aspects of Kittur). 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 twenty-first 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 come out chopped-up and inarticulate.
Ziauddin, the small, dark, chubby teashop boy of the opening story (and the most attractive character in the entire book) 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” (this strange choice of phrase is an inspired one), 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 the “f” sound, 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!” Lasrado’s students are complacent about their access to English, to a good future, but not so another character in the book, the seller of pirated books ‘Xerox’ Ramakrishna, who “cannot read English, but knows that English words have power, and that English books have aura”. That aura of English leaves its mark on even a figure as marginal as Ziauddin, who is immobilised by its magic sound: “Whenever a word was said in English [in the shop] all work stopped: the boy would turn around and repeat the word at the top of his voice (‘Sunday-Monday, Goodbye, Sexy!’), and the entire shop shook with laughter.”
As is evident from these examples, Adiga’s style unites anger with incapacity, with grotesquerie. On several occasions his characters are compared to animals: the cripple whose arms looks like a seal’s flippers; the prisoner who leads his captors by the handcuffs “like a fellow taking two monkeys on a walk”; a prospective groom who is so deferential to his parents he seems “more the family’s domestic pet than the scion”; and the schoolmaster D’Mello who, extending the metaphor to all of humanity, taps his ribs while discussing Indian life with a favourite student and declares “The problem is here...There is a beast inside us.” 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 scandalously wrong, yet everyone must carry on as if nothing is.
The lash of Adiga’s Swiftean rage is only weakened by repetition. As his book proceeds, and we repeatedly encounter the moral perversity of the rich and powerful (“In this life, a man is always a servant of his servants”) and the rancour of the poor and marginalised, the contingency and the tension of conflicts between characters hardens into a position and a politics that seem to lead us to the hidden hand of the narrator.
Even so, Between the Assassinations has a genuinely distinctive worldview and many satisfying passages. In a way, the best sections of this book, with their wealth of almost anthropological detail and careful peeling back of the interior lives of characters, might also be held up as the most lucid criticism of The White Tiger, with its cardboard-cutout protagonist speaking across several incompatible registers, muddled fictional thinking, and banal commentary. Indeed, Between The Assassinations might be read as an indictment not only of the bad faith of Indian social life but also of contemporary publishing, which jumped at Adiga’s other book but allowed this much worthier sibling to languish for so long.
And two old posts: one on the work of art as it takes the measure of a diseased social order in "Anger in Tahmiheh Milani's Two Women", and the other on the allure of English to characters who don't speak it in "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games".