Up Against the Wall

by CHARLES R. LARSON

In this big, often too sprawling novel, the unnamed journalist erstwhile narrator/main character begins, “The morning I heard I’d been shot I was sitting in my office on the second floor looking out the big glass window….”  It’s a Sunday morning and—a little like Salman Rushdie after the fatwa—the government immediately begins protecting him.  Tejpal’s journalist narrator shares similarities with Stieg Larsson’s Michael Blumquist, the hero of the three Millennium novels: he edits a journal that has exposed corruption in India and the journal has suffered from declining readership and, consequently, a shrinking number of pages.  Moreover, just as Larsson depicted Sweden as rotten at its core, suffering from a malaise of violent corruption, Tejpal’s picture of contemporary India is the direct opposite of the country’s success story that we often read about in the West.

Though the journalist is married to a woman he denigrates as Dolly/Folly (the unworldly, unsophisticated result of an arranged marriage), his ardor is saved for the much more tempestuous vixen, named Sara.  She’s a left-wing political junkie, who delights in demeaning sex talk and rough sex, with her favorite position described as “nailed to the wall.”  She, and others, offer comic relief to the much more serious examination of India’s dark underbelly—the primary focus of the story. Sara is also the source of many of the novel’s major revelations.  She delights in referring to her lover as “mr. peashooter.”  If nothing else, she’s got a cracker-jack analytical mind.

With Sara’s help, the journalist begins to understand that it was never intended that he would be murdered, that his five supposed assassins are the real victims of the failed assassination.  This revelation leads him into his own undertaking, his own attempts to unearth the backgrounds of who the five men are and how they happened to be part of a plot supposedly to assassinate him as camouflage for their own deaths. All five would-be killers are in prison, so he observes them once at a hearing, learns their names, and tells the officials that he has never seen any of them before.  “They looked like each other.  Everyman.  The roads, bazaars, offices in India were full of men like them.  Nameless men who did faceless jobs and perished unmarked in train accidents, fires, floods, epidemics, terrorist blasts, riots.  At best, statistical fodder.  But I also knew that was how criminals really looked, not like the stylized stars that movies everywhere in the world love to essay.”

The journalist believes that the five men are little more than thugs, though Sara—who gets much more involved in the men’s lives than the journalist—observes of them, “Their lives are actually worthier than yours.”  In many ways, this is what the narrator also concludes.  The assassins come from the poorest of the poor, from broken homes.  Most were royally abused as children and quickly learned to fend for themselves.  In dog-eat-dog situations, survival meant becoming the one in charge.  Their initial petty crimes led to violent ones, often observed and then employed by don-like figures of the country’s underworld—powerful businessmen and politicians, surrounding themselves with so many seasoned criminals who live above the law.

Here, for example, an attack on India’s educational system, seen as simply another source for nurturing criminals: “Village children in India are not born for the affectations of academic accents and athletics; they go to school to escape oppressive fathers and unrelenting toil.”  And families themselves?  “In Indian families breading insecurity is a favorite pastime.”  There are few aspects of Indian society that do not come under attack in Tejpal’s relentless expose of the lives of the poor, their continuous shattered aspirations.

Late in the story, one of the detectives who has been the journalist’s constant companion for the three or for years of his protection observes of the convoluted way that the attack was organized, “This is India, my friend.  Why do anything simply if you can do it in a complicated way?  Have you ever been to get a driving license or a ration card?  Have you ever filed a complaint at a police station?  Have you ever got a child admitted to school?  It’s the brahminical brain, so wily, so twisted, it draws a straight line by making circles.”

And yet, during his peregrinations into the underworld—into the dark recesses of his five assassins’ backgrounds—Tejpal’s narrator learns two things.  First, there is genuine violence within many men.  The worst of the five, he observes, is the assassin known for his “brain curry,” that is, killing his victims by shattering their skulls with a hammer.  And, second, that hidden within the most violent criminal is a human dimension if it can be unearthed.  Thus, his story is not only his own growth into a more compassionate person but—more importantly—the tortured lives of his five assassins and  the personas they never were able to assume.

Set aside some time for reading Tarun J. Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins, published in India in 2009 and three years later making its ways to our shores.  You will read about an India in great flux, in great turmoil, but also one of extraordinary humanity.

Tarun J. Tejpal: The Story of My Assassins

Melville House, 529 pp., $27.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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