15 June, 2009Issue 9.8FictionLiterature

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An Infernal History of India

Lakshmi Krishnan

toibinAravind Adiga
Between the Assassinations
Atlantic Books, 2009
352 Pages
£9.75
ISBN 978-1848871212

A bomb explodes in a classroom in India. Fed up with years of taunts, an angry half-caste boy tries to blow up his school and kill his teacher—but the ignition chokes, and the bomb fails. This story of failed murder is part of Aravind Adiga’s newest book, Between the Assassinations, the title of which refers to two successful ones: those of India’s sixth and seventh Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. The assassinations of the Gandhis were acts of vengeance by peripheral figures who had suffered and felt wronged. In 1984, Indira was shot by two of her Sikh bodyguards in response to the Indian army’s desecration of Sikhism’s holiest temple. In 1991, Rajiv was bombed by a female member of the Tamil Tigers for atrocities committed by Indian peacekeeping forces against Sri Lankan Tamils. The Gandhis were killed by fellow Indians—religion against religion, culture defying culture.

Beyond the title, Adiga never refers to the Gandhis, for he is not interested in Indian high politics. In this collection of short stories, he is far more concerned with the assassin than with the assassinated. Adiga channels the anger of the assassin, writing with his violent impetus and sense of injustice. This is not to say that Adiga vindicates murder, but rather that he understands it as an extreme act, an intensification of the impulses felt by the aggrieved on a daily basis; in particular cases, those impulses have just cause. While the Gandhi murders are large signposts in history, the desperation that led the guards to open fire and the woman to detonate a bomb exists on a smaller scale in people’s everyday lives. It is this “infernal history” that occupies Adiga–the subterranean anger and frustration that, in his view, defines the Indian everytown’s daily life.

Adiga’s Man Booker prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, tells the story of Balram Halwai, a sardonic driver who smashes his boss’s skull with a bottle, steals his money and identity, and later sets up shop as an entrepreneur in digital Bangalore. But this occurs only after much provocation. Halwai’s revenge is the desperate assassination of a fellow countryman and oppressor. It is a revolt of class and caste, and it is retribution for a lifetime of wrongs. The righteous anger of the Gandhis’ political assassins finds parallel in Halwai’s frightening, yet not entirely incomprehensible, rage. Between the Assassinations, too, is a history of anger. It is a group portrait of the inhabitants of Kittur, a fictional town in the state of Karnataka. Written before The White Tiger, it is in many ways its prototype. It has no towering assassin like Halwai and no grand consummation of revenge. Rather, it is a history of small people and small, everyday brutalities, of grinding, impotent rage and ultimate futility. A history, Adiga suggests, that is closer to the condition of India. As one of his characters says, “the problem is here”, “there is a beast inside us”.

Kittur should be a multiethnic, multi-religious, and multicultural paradise, yet it is crippled by caste segregation, religious prejudice, and petty strife. The stories centre upon the anger of the marginalised, all of whom follow the same trajectory. First, they become aware of a certain wrong, then they internalise anger, make a futile attempt to alter the circumstances, and ultimately recognise their failure. It is a system, and a life, that continues unchanged. A half-caste boy unsuccessfully explodes a bomb in his school; an earnest journalist goes insane when he discovers his newspaper is corrupt; a Muslim factory owner attempts to fight an elaborate system of kickbacks, only to fail. The key moment in Between the Assassinations is that of failure, for it is inevitable—and failure fuels rage, in a cycle that circumscribes a world where history repeats itself.

These failures fuel the resentment of the lower classes. Cooks, drivers, nannies, gardeners, servants: the vox populi of Adiga’s subterranean history. “We’re just trash to them”, says George D’Souza, the mosquito-man, gardener, and driver to a rich Kittur Catholic woman. But abuse begets abuse, and in a manner reminiscent of Balram Halwai, George slowly takes over his mistress’s household, making her utterly dependent on him. Along his upward path, he destroys his fellow servants and replaces them with himself and his sister. George considers himself vindicated, because as Heathcliff declares in Wuthering Heights: “The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against him, they crush those beneath them.” Unlike Halwai, who finally kills his master, George falters. He is thrown out and ends the story where he began: on top of a rubble heap. From the top down, the corrupt system pulverises individuals; each portrait reveals a deep soul-sickness that evokes Indians between the assassinations and, by extension, Indians today. “Thousands were cursing corruption” but “not one fellow had found a way to slay the demon”. Kittur is a place populated by aware, cynical, and ultimately ineffective individuals—a city that, indeed, stands for a country.

The White Tiger, which has been called a satirical tour-de-force, first exposed us to Adiga’s particular sensibility. The author has always acknowledged that he has an axe to grind: to shed a harsh light on the injustices of modern India. This critique figures prominently in Between the Assassinations, where injustice, rage, and impotence are rolled together in the collective damnation of a society. Yet as a literary exercise, it largely fails. We are never allowed to forget that Adiga was once a journalist, and continues to see with a journalist’s eye. Between the Assassinations features a detached narrator, who tells a story that is as chronically humourless as it is unremittingly dark. The White Tiger escapes this bleakness through the momentum and honesty of Halwai’s singular voice, which mitigates the horror with mordant wit,. The monstrous characters that move across The White Tiger’s Dickensian cityscape seem even cruder in the prototype. Halwai himself is a grotesque; his evils are exaggerated and his revenge extreme. Yet because we know the history of his life and the brutalities heaped upon him and his family, it is quite easy to have sympathy for this devil. The people in Between the Assassinations, however, are caricatures without distinctive voices, and as a result, the collection reads as a series of journalistic profiles rather than a literary endeavour. These fissures become especially apparent in the short story form: Adiga needs the length of the novel to sustain his devastating critiques and un-literary style. At times his tales edge toward epiphanic moments à la Dubliners, but while Joyce’s stories represent massive internal movement contained within physical stasis, Adiga’s begin and end in the same place, circumstantially and psychologically.

The assassinations, so close together, of mother and son, capture the uneasy sensation of beginning and ending in the same place, of a repeating infernal history. Concentrating on a time when assassins are fellow countrymen and civil strife endemic, Adiga points to a society whose problems are internal and explodes the notion that the single most important event in the history of modern India is colonialism. Colonialism merely exploited characteristics that were already present, what Adiga calls the “native-born thugs: Betrayal, Bungling, and Backstabbing”. The West barely figures in his work, for Indian in-fighting and self-thwarting is the greatest ongoing battle.

In such a world, there is no place for the white-hot anger of revenge. The assassins who killed the Gandhis either died in the act or were executed. Balram Halwai flees with another identity. But the characters in Between the Assassinations are granted neither the finality of the assassin nor the freedom of a new life. Their discontent is a low-grade fever that burns both intractable and impotent. To know the world is unfair and to do nothing, this is the Indian problem. As Halwai himself would say, “what a fucking joke”.

Lakshmi Krishnan
is reading for a DPhil in English at New College, Oxford.