Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Aravind Adiga's "Between the Assassinations": Book Review

1984-1991, between Indira & Rajiv Gandhi's murders, these stories tell of an Indian coastal city's impoverished, and how they long to break out of their status. Caste, class, and religion play crucial roles. Adiga's tone reminded me of Joyce's paralyzed "Dubliners;" both share a detached, yet sympathetic, eye towards people they've scrutinzed unsparingly, yet compassionately.

No romanticism remains. Chennaya, an ambitious cart-puller paid in cash from which he must pay back each day a rupee to his boss for the "privilege" of being chosen to work for him, expresses the common complaint over three-hundred-and-forty pages. "Somewhere, I hope, a poor man will strike a blow against the world. Because there is no God watching over us. There is no one coming to release us from the jail in which we have locked ourselves." (199)

No comic relief, no lighthearted rhapsodies of natural beauty, no whimsical culture clashes will be found here. This India, far off from the great cities, languishes in its own globalization as its peoples talk and pray in many languages and divide themselves into subdivisions that baffle even the natives. However, the clever ones sprinkle trendy English words into whatever tongue that betrays their discontent.

The best stories, from a very loosely joined, slightly overlapping cast of characters, involve the boy bomber, the cart-puller, a quack charlatan, and the mosquito sprayer. Others, such as that of a schoolteacher or a Brahmin spinster who must work as a maid for a Christian family, seem more character studies than stories that end in an unexpected way, however accurately shown in a fashion that reminds me of Flaubert's sharp preference for social studies.

Ardiga, like many naturalists of 19c literature, appears to aim at a style that follows characters who cannot escape their fate. Charity's withheld, and the cathedral remains unfinished while the old forest's razed for a stadium. The town itself finds itself swelling daily with desperate arrivals from the countryside, and India here contrasts the guidebook prose of the paired stories across seven days with the steady, unrelenting tone of the stories that unfold from the inhabitants who try to climb up the ladder away from those grasping at it below, only to fall back down again and again.

This does present a weighty set of stories, rather grimly arrayed one after the other by mostly males who resent, understandably would be an understatement, their predicament. Initiative and ingratiation, savvy and cruelty demand that each newcomer to Kittur climb up on the backs of his brother, his bunkmates, his fellow workers who sleep beside him in the gutter. Two hundred other men wait for each man to make a mistake. "The rich can make mistakes again and again," the mosquito-sprayer George laments. "We make only one mistake, and that's that for us." (246) The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Maoist) boasts a local membership of two; the capitalist system will not topple now.

Reading Ardiga, it's difficult for the reader to capture any hope; one finishes this book as depressed as the characters he portrays in recognizably downbeat, yet well-rounded and thoughtfully detailed depth. The fatalism of this collection may sink one's spirits. The imperial and traditional laws may have been changed, but castes and status burden those in Kittur long after the departure of the Portuguese or the British, and colonialism appears to stretch back to Brahmin times despite distant claims by corrupt parties and bribed bureaucrats of a democratic India today. The title speaks for itself, bracketing a bit of depressing normalcy amid the outbursts of chaos (Posted to Amazon US 7-1-09.)

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