India’s melting pot of paradoxes

By Alexander Theroux
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2009

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‘Between the Assassinations’’ comprises a series of interconnected short stories that, taking place over seven days, form a mosaic of life as it is lived in the Indian coastal town of Kittur. It is familiar terrain to any reader of Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel of last year, “The White Tiger.’’ Each story, invariably one of corruption as well as class and caste struggle rendered personal, follows a different character.

The book’s title derives from the time-scheme between the slayings of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and that of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. “Everything’s been falling apart in this country since Mrs. Gandhi was shot,’’ laments one disaffected fellow in the story, “The Sultan’s Battery.’’ “Buses are late. Trains are late. . . . We’ll have to hand this country back to the British or the Russians or someone, I tell you. We’re not meant to be masters of our fate, I tell you.’’

The town centers the action the way “Winesburg, Ohio’’ did for Sherwood Anderson and Aracataca did for Gabriel Garcia Márquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.’’ It is a colorful if impoverished backdrop, with its ancient fort, mosque, temple, and busy main thoroughfare, Umbrella Street, the commercial center of town. Here is a melting pot of people, Hindu, Sunni Muslims, Bunt, Hoyka, and Portuguese - they built the famous lighthouse - and spoken here is Tulu, Urdu, English, and of course Kannada, the official language of the state of Karnataka, in which the town of Kittur is located.

Coping is paramount here. In “Angel Talkies’’ the smug little journalist Gururaj learns in a shocking and undermining epiphany that it is an old Gurkha who sits outside of a bank all night alone, and sadly not himself, who truly knows the real events going on in town. In the story, “The Cathedral of Our Lady of Our Lady of Valencia’’ there is a terrible comeuppance for ambitious George D’Souza, the mosquito-repellent man, who, although he finds lucky employment with Mrs. Gomes, also has to discover that, no matter how hard we try, our fate is not in our hands - and that the old ways of India are hard-wired into modern culture.

Adiga, who has a deft comic touch, is especially good delineating young rebels and obstreperous schoolboys. We meet the cheeky Shankara, a half lower-caste/half-Brahmin “bad boy’’ in an all-boys Jesuit school, who sets off a bomb in the story “St. Alfonso’s Boys’ High School and Junior College.’’ Selling hand-copied books to those students in the story “Lighthouse Hill’’ is the entrepreneur known as “Xerox’’ Ramakrishna who not only loves books but makes his living illegally self-printing and photocopying all sorts of books - from “Mein Kampf’’ to “The Joy of Sex.’’

There is a casualness to many of the stories, several of them wanting in tightness. Economy, the genre’s best friend, is sometimes wanting here. One can add, however, that the effort to bring this alien world alive, to make it realistic, to bring you its smells and salaciousness, is one of this writer’s distinct gifts.

But finally the subject here is India itself. In providing a setting of such relentless darkness, even if lightened by occasional humor, the stories seem to precede “The White Tiger.’’ Among other things, we are told in so many words, that the social unrest in this paradoxical land will only get worse if the Indian political system does not improve. “When it comes to three things,’’ a malcontent in “The Bunder’’ says to Abbasi, the disgruntled factory-owner who is shaken down by town officials, “black-marketing, counterfeiting, and corruption, we are the world champions. If they were included in the Olympic Games, India would always win gold, silver, and bronze in those three.’’

Alexander Theroux is the author of many books, including “Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual.”


Free Press, 352 pp., $24

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