Aravind Adiga reportedly said about his Booker-winning The White Tiger that “the main reason anyone would want to read this book, or so I hope, is because it entertains them and keeps them hooked to the end. I don’t read anything because I ‘have’ to: I read what I enjoy reading, and I hope my readers will find this book fun, too.”
Well, Adiga’s new book is perhaps the least “fun” read of our century thus far. Did I enjoy this book? No. Did it keep me hooked to the end? Yes, by God!
The book’s title refers to the period between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi (1984) and Rajiv Gandhi (1990). Between The Assassinations unsparingly indicts an India where healthcare, clean water, sanitation and electricity are luxuries reserved for the rich. Very different from the crowd-pleasing The White Tiger in both tone and form, this book takes the shape of interlinked short stories–each more hellishly raw than its predecessor. The author trains his all-seeing eye on Kittur, an average small town in South India, and the results aren’t pretty. Poverty isn’t a genteel if grim pressure, but a degrading and ultimately dehumanizing state of being. A homeless rickshaw puller finds himself performing his ablutions next to a stray pig. “At once, he thought, God, what am I becoming? … He told himself… There is a difference between man and animal; there is a difference.”
The author’s tragic vision ensures that conventional escape routes aren’t available to the protagonists — caste and class barriers put paid to those taunting hopes. Neither love or religion, nor violence or drugs provide any real respite to the poor of Kittur. And wealth isn’t always the answer: Abbasi, a rich businessman whose workers are going blind embroidering “export quality” shirts, is tortured by remorse but sees no way out. That Abbasi is one of the most likable characters in Between The Assassinations pretty much sums this book up. Some readers may find this work overwrought and irredeemably pessimistic; I felt Adiga’s hold upon the desperate side of humanity was all too real.
This review appears in The Asian Review of Books.