Friday, November 26, 2010

Aravind Adiga's Between the Assassinations

Simon and Schuster, 2008
339 pages
$1 (plus shipping) at

Aravind Adiga has drawn attention with his last two works, this one a collection of loosely-connected stories, for highlighting the resentment and rage of India's urban underclass. His name stands out from a growing body of established Indian writers--Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghoush, and Hari Kunzro--whose works focus more on the malaise of the upper classes. His characters are often poor, desperate, and angry. Their economic class is as much a part of their identity as their Indianness. And it seems that as soon as they gather their bearings and anchor their lives, their earnestness and optimism are exploited by the elite.

In this collection of loosely-connected short stories taking place in the city of Kittur, a train station porter's ethnic pride is exploited by a scout for Kashmiri terrorists, a star bus conductor is cast into the streets when an accident mentally incapacitates him, a newspaper editor goes mad when he discovers his investigations and impartial reporting are propping up economic and political elites, a communist with a passion for social justice discovers his efforts to defend the poor undermine his public standing and chances for marriage, and a young girl treks hours through her city to beg money for her father's heroin habit. In this vortex of poverty and scrabbling, characters eke out lives performing menial tasks for the wealthy, who complain about the fattening effects of food at their private clubs.

I love the way Adiga illustrates the nihilism and loathing of India's poor, its lower castes, and its disempowered. The details of these stories describe the mix of old-world traditions and new-world poverty, such as when a house servant mixes onion and chopped coriander with plastic packets of MSG. India is too often romanticized as the land of sadhus, yoga, meditation and colorful saris, but these characters frequent the local pornographic movie theater, get into brawls at the liquor store, betray their families and curse their own lives. In one of my favorite of these tales, a dismissed housekeeper wonders what the gods would do to her in the next life for stealing a broken toy from her master's yard. Would she be reborn as a "cockroach, a silverfish that lived in old books, an earthworm, a maggot in a pile of cow shit... maybe," she wonders, "if she sinned enough in this life, she would be sent back as a Christian in the next one...."

Time Out New York complained that this work lacked a center of focus. It's a criticism I can agree with, but I don't think it detracts from the enjoyment of these stories. The British Telegraph sees the collection as an extension of the "chicken coop" society that Adiga described in White Tiger: "Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country." Oddly enough, all of these reviews mistakenly identify the setting as the "fictional city of Kittur," Has no one heard of Google Maps?

Book critics are wont to fall over themselves praising authors once a previous work achieves a critical measure of success (see Dan Brown and others), but in this case I think the praise is warranted. Adiga is an writer to watch, and I look forward to his next work. For those with a hunger for more, three of his stories, previously posted in the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the Times are available free on his website.

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