Capturing the pulse or flavor of any particular place is difficult. One person perceives things differently than another. Some have access to places and locations others could never enter or may fear to enter. This is particularly so for a country as diverse as India. Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations attempts to surmount that problem by putting together several loosely connected stories of life in fictional Kittur, India.
Between the Assassinations was written about the same time as The White Tiger, for which Adiga won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. The book’s title refers to the period between the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the 1991 assassination of her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who had also served as prime minister and was running for parliament at the time of his murder. Adiga considers 1991 “the great divide in modern Indian history,” the year in which Indian opened itself to the global market. While The White Tiger is set after that time, Between the Assassinations is set specifically in that time frame, a period he views as “years largely of squandered idealism and hope.”
Adiga structures Between the Assassinations around the concept of a guidebook to his fictional city, located on the Arabian Sea in southwestern India. He lays out the history and geography of the town but the “tour guides” to the areas are the stories, each representing a different part of the city. The opening of the “guidebook” tells us that, because of the town’s “diversity of religion, race, and language, a minimum stay of a week is recommended.” Thus, Adiga gives the impression we are touring Kittur over the course of seven days. In fact, a review of the chronology at the end of the book indicates the sketches did not occur within such a timespan. Not only do they occur throughout the entire period between the two assassinations, the tales do not appear to be presented in chronological order.
Perhaps this is Adiga’s way of reinforcing that when it comes to India – and other nations – we should not rely solely upon what’s on the surface. In fact, many of the characters in this story would be largely invisible in the course of the city’s everyday life — the young Muslim who comes from his village and gains works as a gofer in tea and samosa shop, a youth from another village who arrives on the bus and rises to the level of a tram conductor before suffering a head injury that leaves him homeless two years later, or the girl who begs on the streets so her father can buy drugs.
But Between the Assassinations does not shine a light only on the seemingly invisible. One of the book’s strengths is that it cuts across lines, whether they be caste, religion or socioeconomic. Thus, other stories focus on those who have advantages in life, whether they are the mixed caste Hindu son of a plastic surgeon who sets off a bomb in his Jesuit school school, the owner of a clothing factory struggling with the bribes and corruption in local government or the newspaper editor whose search for the truth takes him into the realm of madness.
Still, underscoring most of the stories is a sense of injustice, be it social or economic, even if that sense is somewhat perverse. It is most appropriate and most often seen in the stories of the underprivileged.
Thus, the man who pedals a cycle-cart making deliveries to the rich in town is continually sees the differences in living standards created and reinforced by economic and caste status. His anger grows immensely each day. “The scent of basil from near him seemed like evidence that there were good things in the world. But when he opened his eyes, the earth around him was one of thorns and shit and stray animals.” In another story, a laborer observes, “The rich can make mistakes again and again. We make only one mistake, and that’s it for us.”
Between the Assassinations does not mince words about poverty, the caste system, corruption and greed. Yet at times it feels like the bell might be rung a few too many times. And while the concept of a guidebook is a somewhat unique approach, it is not strong enough alone to tie the stories together or to help create a more coherent whole. The book may well be an example of the parts being greater than the whole. In addition, given that the book examines life in a seven-year period nearly 20 years ago, the extent to which change has occurred and whether Adiga’s characters are or would be better off today is a pertinent, yet unanswered, question.
Although Adiga creates a strong dichotomy between rich and poor, higher caste and lower caste, honesty and dishonesty, many of the characters seem to share a broad characteristic. Most of them seem to have hope, a dream that life will get better. Some ultimately squander that hope, most often because they lack the power to effect change. Other stories leave the reader to speculate on whether life changed. In either event, Between the Assassinations does attempt to take us beneath the surface and provide unique and varying perspectives on life in India.
When you are this poor, you are not given the right to complain.
Aravind Adiga, Between the Assassinations