Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dystopian Nostalgia : A review of "Between the Assassinations" by Aravind Adiga

I have recently begun reading the novel "Between the assassinations" by Aravind Adiga. I am now more than half-way through the novel. Reading this book has been an interesting experience for me - simultaneously producing a mellow longing for the India of my childhood years and a deeply unpleasant feeling about the troubles that benighted that era. In the book, Adiga creates a portrait during the 1980s of a middle-sized town along the southern coastal belt of India. He locates his imaginary town "Kittur" along the south-western Tulu coast near Mangalore. Even though I grew up on the other horizontal end of India, in the Godavari delta on the south-eastern coast, many of Adiga's narrative portraits apply equally well to this region.

The assassinations in the book's title refer to those of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. I was less than ten years old during the timeline of this book, so I had a very vivid but childlike perspective on the happenings around me. When I grew older, I immediately left home for my education. I spent the past half of my life either living abroad or focussed on engineering and technologies; thus I hardly had any eye over the lives of real people in India. India today is quite different from the stories that Adiga narrates, but many of the portraits that he draws of people and places still remain. Furthermore, my own experiences of India remain etched in that distant memory. So reading this book has been like reliving my childhood years through an adult's eye. As one can imagine, this is hardly pleasant.

Adiga reminds me of another Indian writer in English who built a distinctive portrait of south Indian life during the early 1900s - the inimitable R.K.Narayan. Narayan, of course, has imagined the charming town of Malgudi and the fascinating inner lives of its denizens. I do think Adiga's Kittur falls quite short of the narrative gifts of the earlier master, but he shows quite a promise.

So what is unpleasant about Adiga's stories ? As a child, I hardly had the time to ponder about the personal lives of many of the people I encountered daily : the Hamali who carried two large back-breaking sacks of rice husk from the rice-flake factory (on the grounds of which we played cricket) to a distant brick kiln, the Brahmin widow who spent all her time chanting the lord's names, the pot-bellied teacher in the school who despised his pupils but at the same time tried to coax the best out of some of them, the begging children of the agricultural laborers who arrived on each harvesting season to work on the paddy fields, the little kid who cleared the tables in the breakfast hotel as hungry customers demanded their daily Dosas, the grocery stall owner who sold his wares in rapid-fire manner to his customers standing in long queues.. These are people who existed for me only in the fleeting moments that I passed them by. Their personal lives had no import nor relevance to my world. The characters of Adiga mirror many of these same people, and this forced me to examine their personal lives in gritty detail, as each one of them carried through a daily struggle to survive and to secure their own place in the society. As an adult, I can now see these battles for survival and the insecurities that come with them, with more sympathetic eyes and with clearer parallels to my own life.

Any writer of substance should have a keen eye for smells, as it is these smells that add colours and depth to an otherwise distant portait. Adiga is definitely a master in capturing those smells - pleasant, pungent, piquant and putrid, all of them. I am not a happier man for reading his stories, but definitely a wiser man. And may be, that's how I should judge him as a writer and this is why I am recommending him to my friends, especially to those who are living abroad and forgot a part of themselves in an India of the past.