Business as Usual in India

Between the Assassinations refers to the time between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s death on the last day of 1984, when she was killed by her own bodyguards, and her son Rajiv Gandhi’s similar death, by assassination, in May of 1991—years that Aravinda Adiga shows as troubled ones for India’s quiescent democracy.  Not a novel in the conventional sense, Adiga’s skilled narrative is more loosely a collection of overlapping short stories: same place, same time, some continuity of characters but, above all, variations on a theme of extreme difficulty for many of his country’s millions.

There are poverty, corruption, race and class tensions—to mention only three in what for me is a much more accomplished book than The White Tiger, for which Adiga was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2008.  The events depicted in the new work cover a period of only seven days and all take place in Kittur, an imaginary city in southern India, somewhat akin to R. K. Narayan’s imaginary and always inventive Malgudi.  The same adjectives apply to Adiga’s work.

In the second of these stories—but still set on the first day—a businessman named Abbasi spreads some of his own excrement into a glass of Johnnie Walker that a government official expects as part of his pay-off for approving Abbasi’s newly opened shirt factory.  Abbasi himself is an enlightened employer, concerned that the detailed embroidery on the shirts his workers produce is slowly driving them blind.

He’s done everything he can to improve their lot, but the system itself is so corrupt that it’s hard to make a rupee.  In the four months since he decided to re-open what was once his father’s shirt factory, he’s had to pay off: “The electricity man; the Water Board man; half the Income Tax Department of Kittur; half the Excise Department of Kittur; six different officials of the Telephone Board; a land tax official of the Kittur City Corporation; a sanitary inspector from the Karnataka State Health Board; a health inspector from the Karnataka State Sanitation Board; a delegation of the All India Small Factory Workers’ Union; and delegations of the Kittur Congress Party, the Kittur BJP, the Kittur Communist Party, and the Kittur Muslim League.”

It isn’t difficult to understand why the little instances of revenge—excrement, urine, and spit mixed in the officials’ drinks—give Abbasi an occasional satisfying feeling of revenge.  But the real problem is red tape and the obvious implication that with everyone on the take capitalism cannot succeed.  Finally, in a more ambitious act of revenge, Abbasi directly confronts the latest government officials who visit his factory for a bribe and experiences a genuine feeling of satisfaction.  However, his story itself is anything but hopeful about India—still trapped in the legacy of Indira Gandhi’s corrupt leadership and a bureaucracy so extensive that little ever gets done.

In later stories, Adiga shows us the unrest of students at the university, of migrants from the country who seek their fortunes in Kittur only to have those dreams crushed, of Muslim/Hindu tensions.  In one particularly revealing sequence, a journalist discovers that an article he had published weeks earlier about a riot in Kittur was far from the truth of what had actually happened.  Discovering doctored police records, he learns that the violence was planned by government officials—for profit, of course.  By the end of the story, his idealism has vanished and, sadly, he’s begun to question his entire career as a print journalist.

Though any number of the stories in the volume are worthy of note, I was particularly moved by the quietness of one that concerns a woman who is forced by her family to cook in the households of upper-class Indians. For forty years, she toils with no reward—giving up the possibility of marriage and children—never even seeing her meager wages, which are always sent home to her family and her more fortunate siblings.  At the end of still another several-year position cooking for a rich family, she covets a blue ball that one of the children in the household has abandoned.  It’s even partially damaged, but when she asks the boy if she can take the ball with her when she finally returns to her family, he answers with an emphatic NO.  What follows is, again–as in the story of the owner of the shirt factory–a fleeting Chekhovian moment of happiness, virtually all she will ever get out of life.

The stories in Adiga’s Between the Assassinations are both beautiful and troubling: quiet moments of despair and frustration, resignation and happiness.  India’s stagnation under the Indira Gandhi dynasty, he implies, bordered on the claustrophobic.  Yet there is truth, and finally even hope, for those who decide that enough is enough, that it’s time to take things into their own hands.

Between the Assassinations
By Aravinda Adiga
Free Press, 339 pp., $24

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.