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Book Review: Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

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There's a literary tradition of creating a series of stories tied together by location. Through a series of vignettes featuring the lives of a variety of individuals in a community the author attempts to give readers an impression of life in the locale. The most famous of these collections are Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and James Joyce's Dubliners. Although from different worlds and stylistically miles apart, both men brought their chosen cities to life in ways that left indelible impressions upon the reader. 

In Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga tries his hand at the genre setting his stories in the city of Kittur on the southwest coast of India. The titular assassinations refer to the 1984 death of Indira Gandhi and the killing of her son Rajiv seven years later in 1991. While neither event has any direct bearing on the course of action in this book, they were important events in the history of India. Sandwiched between the two, the "life as normal" scenes depicted by Adiga are a history you don't normally read in text books.  

Adiga frames the book as a tourist guide to the region. He explains that in order to properly "do" Kittur you need seven days and the book is divided into seven sections. While some areas of the city might take a full day to explore, others take only part of a day, thus some chapters cover a full day and others only a morning or an afternoon. The guidebook descriptions for each chapter are rather tongue-in-cheek with landmarks including a pornographic movie theatre, an unfinished cathedral, an historic monument fallen into disrepair, and violent slums. Kittur is best known for being located halfway between a couple of other places and having a very high population of lower caste Hoyka people. Within the total population of Kittur, only eighty-nine people self identify as being without religion or caste. 

It shouldn't be of much surprise that caste, class, and religion play a role in the majority of the stories. Everything that occurs in the city exists under these shadows and they're a constant presence in the backs of people's minds. In Kittur your place is very closely defined and even thinking about crossing the line could result in disaster. It's all right for a servant to make himself indispensable, but to try and be treated as an equal and see what happens. 

Like any good tour guide, Between the Assassinations divides your seven-day sojourn in Kittur by location. The guides change by day and location and the perspective they offer isn't one that you'd normally find through the standard tour companies. How many companies would use an unskilled labourer like George D'Souza to show you around the famous unfinished cathedral? Nor would many hire the student who exploded a bomb in his science class to show you around the well-known Jesuit school St. Alfonso's Boys' High School and Junior College. No, they'd be more likely to hire the assistant headmaster Mr. D'Mello instead, a firm disciplinarian who after more than thirty years of teaching can anticipate what mischief young men can get up to before they even know themselves. Although they may not have had him lead a group of adolescent boys on a tour of the infamous "Angels' Talkies" pornographic cinema.

I'm also certain most tour companies wouldn't have on their agendas the sights our guides show us in and around the locales they represent. How many tourists are going to want visit the back alleys where the poor sleep? I don't think they'd appreciate it either if their guides ran a side business selling fake cures for venereal diseases or included visits to clinics euphemistically named "Happy Life" as part of the tour of the historic fort The Sultan's Battery. However it's these guides and their lives that give our tour of Kittur the authenticity that most lack. 

While the majority of the characters we meet in Between the Assassinations are those who feel the weight of caste and class heaviest, Adiga doesn't just give us one perspective as so many other writers have developed a habit of doing. It's a factory owner who gives us a tour of The Bunder, the area of town where criminal activity is concentrated. It's not that he's involved in anything illegal, but among the drug runners and smugglers he finds a sympathetic audience to unburden himself to about the number of bribes he has to pay in order to stay open. 

No matter whose eyes we see the city through, the picture is not a pretty one. Corruption is rampant and poverty is a child's normal inheritance, even the poorest having to pay off someone for the privilege of sleeping in a back alley. Adiga's characters aren't always the nicest of people, but they're what their world made them and the connection between who they are and the conditions that shaped them is drawn accurately without being sensationalized. Although it's is beginning to feel like every book set in India released in North America is mainly concerned with recounting social ills that tarnish the economic miracle image that is trumpeted in the press, Adiga's study of life in Kittur only does so indirectly; themes like religious violence and corruption aren't the focus, but simply part and parcel of the lives his characters live. 

Like Joyce and Anderson before him, Adiga has concentrated his energies on the people of his focus city. By giving us glimpses into their lives, opening their hearts and minds to us so that we the city through their eyes, we are given a multi-dimensional view of life in Kittur. Offering a kaleidoscopic view of the city, each chapter presents a different perspective. As a result, this is a remarkably well developed picture of life in a specific city and a number of the people who live in it. Although we may mark history with events like the assassinations of major figures in society, individual stories are continually being played out, and taken together they form the story of the place where they live.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://blog.bryanmckay.com/ Bryan

    If you’re interested in place-based fiction like this, Donald Ray Pollock’s short story collection Knockemstiff is a really great look at poor rural Americans. Also, Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake sets five stories in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, showing characters lives without being directly about the disaster itself.

  • slime

    I never read books a lot. I haven’t read adiga.

    I have lived around Kittur , in Belgaum, played around. Kittur is historic to extent of regional powerhouse. for tourists, it wont make a great tourist spot. I would advise to mix Kittur with Amboli, secenic water falls at hilltop and wind sand beaches of Sawantwadi. This would be a weeks trip with focus on sindhudurg.