Aravind Adiga understands the cosmic. He knows the world in which we live is governed by immutable rules, and in Between the Assassinations he endeavors to educate us of those guidelines with a tragic sense of the inevitable that would make 19th century Naturalists feel depressed. Oh, and it’s funny, too.
Told through a series of vignettes, the novel describes 7 days in the life of Kittur, a fictional Indian city, between the assassinations (see what he did there?) of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. So basically, the 80′s. And as every Reagan fan knows, if you weren’t white and and in America, the 80′s sucked. Adiga uses the separate tales to describe the injustices and ironies of Indian life. As we learn about Kittur’s physical geography, we are also introduced to its social makeup. By the time Adiga has fully explored landmarks like the train station, Lighthouse Hill, and the Muslim slums, he’s also exposed us to the people and social character of the city. These 14 stories breathe a certain character into Kittur, and by the end of the novel we are familiarized with a harsh, unforgiving city, but not one without a sense of humor. Though granted, it’s a very dark comedy.
Muslims, Hindus, and Christians co-inhabit the crowded mass of streets and construction, constantly coming into conflict with each other, and themselves. Adiga focuses his narrative on the downtrodden, on the poor. We are introduced to country bumpkins looking for work, small-time factory owners, Muslim luggage porters, hired maids, etc. But by the end of the novel we find ourselves asking, are there any free, rich people at all? We get the feeling even Mabroor Engineer, the alleged richest man in the city, most likely has many politicians he has to bribe, and limits even he can’t overcome. There never seems to be an actual “top” to the hierarchy. Just a sprawling caste system trapping everyone inside its procrustean confines. Adiga does mention that some people do seem to step outside the system’s boundaries; unfortunately, the few who do get out, die. (see: Indira and Rajiv Gandhi).
The short stories themselves are great overall though, of course, some are stronger than others. I personally liked the last 3 or 4 the most. The little narrative about the childless couple living near the woods bordered on poetry. It hits an almost Buddhist aesthetic, dwelling on the ephemeral nature of the world to really tug at your emotions. It’s rare to be so affected by 2 lives you’ve only read about for 20 or so pages. Also, The story about the old maid being hired out to richer families by her sister strikes a pitch-perfect balance between the ridiculous and tragic. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at something so depressing. The old communist’s tale is great, too. It’s interesting to read about people who theoretically reject class distinction, and yet are forced to live in a world completely defined by the very concept.
The book is not without its flaws, however. The narrative can be a little blunt at times, and the book lacks the subversive sophistication of Adiga’s other novel, The White Tiger, which you should read if you haven’t. Also, a few of the stories are significantly weaker than the collective whole, and a couple tales step on each other’s toes thematically.
Though not as good as The White Tiger, Between the Assassinations is still an excellent book, and very worth your while. Highly recommended by your impetuous reviewer.