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Beyond the guidebook

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

Between the Assassinations Aravind Adiga

Atlantic Books, pp.351, 14.99

Between the Assassinations is to summer reading what Slum-dog Millionaire was to feelgood movies: the book, like the film, beneath a deceptively beguiling surface, is a Dickensian-dark view of child labour, corruption, poverty, and ruthless privilege in modern India.

Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker prize with his first novel, The White Tiger, a savage picture of modern India seen through the eyes of a murderous entrepreneur hell-bent on power and success. Between the Assassinations sometimes reads like a prelude to that book: from the variously hopeless lives we encounter in these stories could have emerged the appalling yet dazzling anti-hero of Tiger. Set in Kittur, an imaginary everytown on the Malabar coast, the narratives are interleaved with deadpan excerpts from a ‘guidebook’: each a bland description of the neighbourhood where the subsequent story will be set — railway station, pornographic cinema, Jesuit school for boys and so on. The irony lies in the mismatch between the guidebook and what exists beyond its pages.

The book leads us through the streets of the city and into the overlapping lives of its inhabitants in the years between the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv in 1991. Nasty, brutish and short gets nowhere near the awfulness of these lives: what stands between despair and survival could be a unit of currency almost too small to compute.

A boy finds a gutter to sleep in alongside a sewer and counts himself lucky — until the Boss shows up, demanding payment for the space or else. A small girl begs her way ten miles across town to earn money for her drug-addict father — who then beats her for her pains. The endearingly named Xerox, a peddlar of pirated books, attempts repeatedly, despite limbs broken in police custody, to sell a copy of The Satanic Verses. Women in a shirt factory stitch minute patterns; work that will render them blind…

With a population speaking nine languages, split between Brahmins, Hoykas (one of the ‘backward’ castes), Dalits (formerly Untouchables), Muslims both Sunni and Shi’ite, Catholics and (representing the secular), Marxist-Maoists — a party with just two members, Adiga’s little town seethes with life and the complexities of inter-caste resentment; the disdain, contempt and fear, that prevail. A kind-hearted man is not admired: ‘his reputation was that of a simple-minded creature prone to regular outbreaks of idealism’…

A rickshaw-puller slogs his way up a hill; 29 years old, already bent and twisted from bearing heavy weights: ‘You have to attain a certain level of richness before you can complain about being poor,’ he observes. ‘When you are this poor, you are not given the right to complain.’ Like others, he had left his village for a better life, but the realisation comes to him that the day he arrived was destined to be the best: ‘You had already been expelled from paradise, the moment you walk into the city.’

Adiga captures the townsfolk with tiny, telling details, rich and poor alike anatomised. By the end it has become clear that with India’s economy, as with the buses in Kittur, even when crammed to bursting point, people clinging on outside and huddling precariously on the roof, some will always be left behind, there isn’t room for everyone.

These lives of desperation — quiet or clamorous — would be unbearable to read about without Adiga’s wild humour and spring-heeled prose. His characters leap off the page, if only to grab you by the throat.

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