Sunday, April 19, 2009

Between the Assassinations

Below is my piece on Aravind Adiga's short story collection Between the Assassinations published at The Kathmandu Post:

The stories of Kittur

Deepak Adhikari

Set in the period between the killings of two Indian prime ministers (Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1991), Between the Assassinations weaves the tales of Kittur, a small town in India's south-western coast, in between Goa and Calicut. Although Aravind Adiga wrote these stories before The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Booker Prize, they came out only after his debut novel.

A collection of twelve untitled short stories, Between the Assassinations is populated with characters that range from an illiterate Muslim teenager working at a train station, a terrorist who lures him into a potential act of terror, a rich, half-caste student who decides to explode a bomb in a college to an editor unable to come to terms with truth. There are little misunderstandings and twists of fate, like the one where a young boy looking for a bride ends up with a mysterious disease. But the most important character in the book is the town itself.

Kittur with its diversity, its social fabric woven in each story, is almost personified. It is given a lifelike quality. It also plays a central role in each story, its presence is felt everywhere. Every story is preceded by an introduction of the setting. For instance, in the first story, the train station is introduced thus: “The arches of the train station frame your first view of Kittur as you come in as a passenger on a Madras Mail (arrival early morning) or the West Coast Express (arrival afternoon). The station is dim, dirty, and littered with discarded lunch bags that stray dogs poke their noses into; in the evenings, the rats come out.” What follows is Ziauddin's struggle to find work in a hostile town. A chance encounter with a 'stranger' leads to his complicity in a possible terror attack.

Like RK Narayan, another South Indian novelist who set most of his stories in Malgudi, an imaginary town, Adiga has clinically examined the life and characteristics of this real South Indian town. The book unravels the characters' frustration, corruption, faltering relationships and search for elusive truth. But unlike Narayan, whose stories are set during a rather peaceful period of colonial India, Adiga depicts an India replete with cruelty, banality and division along ethnic and religious lines. Adiga's fictional world is more complex and therefore more authentic than that of Narayan, who centered his stories on the simple life of a small town that seemed unaware of the world outside its boundary.

However, Adiga's characters are also everymen who grapple with life's challenges. One such character is Abbasi. When the story opens, Abbasi is entertaining an official from the Electricity Board (“He was a fat, black man in a blue safari suit, with a steel ballpoint pen in its pocket”). Abbasi, a Muslim “with a streak of grey in his beard which he did not attempt to dye”, runs a factory that produces export-quality shirts.

But the most important task for him seems to be bribing corrupt government officials (“Corruption. There is no end to it in this country.") Abbasi laments that “ever since Mrs. Gandhi died, this country is falling apart.” He then drives his white Ambassador to Canara Club to play snooker and have drinks with friends. After many pegs of whisky, he realizes he cannot go home for fear of his wife's nagging. He drives to the port where he meets smugglers, car thieves and thugs. He feels at home with them because “while they sipped tea, nothing would happen to Abbasi.” Camaraderie among Muslims has pervaded the area: “The sense of solidarity among Muslims at the port had deepened since the riots.” Through the character of Abbasi, Adiga has uncovered the all-pervasive corruption that has plagued Indian bureaucracy.

Mixing reportage and narrative (Adiga is a former Time magazine correspondent), the Indian author creates a big canvas with a wide range of finely drawn characters. A chronology dating from 31 October 1984 to 21 May 1991 is included at the end of the book.

The stories in this collection delve deeper into the extraordinary transformation of India. What emerges is a group portrait of individuals whose lives are shaped and damaged by casteism, corruption, terrorism, injustice, communal riots, extreme poverty and underdevelopment. Adiga offers a microcosm of India that is brutal, and hence credible.

In fact, Adiga's short story collection is more nuanced than his better known novel. Every fiction writer struggles with form i.e. whether to write long fiction or short. For Adiga, the verdict is out: the short story is his forte.

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