Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

I don’t want it to end. I’ve got to stay away from it, to make it last through the weekend, but I keep going back for more. I’ve got less than two hundred pages to go in the new book by the author of The White Tiger, and that doesn’t seem nearly enough. Those pages are rapidly dwindling. I should stop now. I’ve read enough for today. On the other hand, just a few more pages, maybe…

 Yes, Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations is a book of stories, but they all take place in the same town with the same streets and landmarks, and the vision behind them is so uniform that a momentum builds that unites them all into one torrent of exhilarating, endlessly-surprising narrative.

The story-lover in me is just drunk with satisfaction. These stories have shapes that catch you off-guard, unexpected heroes. They’re serpentine and tricky – not in their style, which is straightforward, but in the thinking behind them, the way they open up into plots you don’t see coming.

 Take this morning, for instance. The bent, exhausted coolie hauling mattresses on his head in the blazing sun over Lighthouse Hill turns out to be twenty-nine years old. Up until then, I’d assumed he was a grizzled old man. He’s the hero of the story, and he burns more calories than he consumes. He’ll be dead by forty.

Every story is packed with little character surprises like that, as you watch the disadvantaged and unlucky in the town of Kittur bravely and defiantly try to struggle on with their compromised lives. You meet the wild-haired son of the village barber torn between loyalty to his real brother and to the thug king called Brother. You meet the honest, idealistic newsman slowly going mad as he realizes his newspaper intentionally doesn’t report the truth.

  The stories are embedded in a tour guide as a framing device, with walking suggestions for tourists spending a week in Kittur, a small town on the southwest coast of India. You go to the train station, and hear the story of a small black Muslim boy porter and his mysterious benefactor. You go to the boys’ school, and a bomb goes off in the classroom of the chemistry teacher with a speech impediment. From story to story the reader soon learns the geography of the place, so that before long you know right where you are. You know where the St Alfonso’s boys’ school is, and all the shops on Umbrella Street. You know Lighthouse Hill, and the dangerous Bunder warehouse district. You know who the richest man in town is. You know that his demanding wife doesn’t tip.

The style is swift and economical. There’s no lingering, no wasted words, with a delight on almost every page, some unanticipated turn-around or personality-revealing encounter. Even the sky over Kittur becomes a player in the Scheherazade-like stream of storytelling: ““…each time he saw a streak of pink in the sky, he thought he could detect some God of Fairness watching over the Earth and glowering with anger.”

  That god is very much the author. It’s his indignation at unfairness that gives this crowded little volume its heartwarming unity, a feeling of Chekhov-like compassion that somehow redeems the soul-killing poverty and debasement with the grace of humor, spunk, and understanding.

Or, at least that sounds right to me now. Enough. I can only go on so long, and then I’ve got to get back to it. Maybe one more story…



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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