The Story of My Assassins
Tarun J Tejpal
"The winding staircase … had banks of windows with latches that ought to have allowed them to open six inches but they were all jammed shut and the panes were so caked with dirt … that not a shard of light could penetrate. A cement banister wound alongside but there was no way we could bring ourselves to put a hand on it."
Tarun J Tejpal's description of the police headquarters in Delhi, whose visitors cannot help wondering about "the state of the state", vividly reminded me of another Indian building, the office of a Bangalore-based newspaper where I had once worked.
The shabby interior, prehistoric computers and broken lifts are not, of course, my main impressions of that time - I have seen my fair share of stray dogs, village wells, power cuts, country roads, teeming slums, traffic accidents, plus an orphanage. Needless to say, even all those are just the tip of the iceberg that is India. And, as Tejpal warns in his novel, no one "had any real idea of this country if he had not wandered through the frozen glaciers of its legal system … and been shown some chilling X-rays of the grand body of Indian law and order and justice".
The way this machine works is one of the many things the unnamed protagonist of The Story of My Assassins finds out about his country after learning that a contract has been taken out on his life. In this respect, the novel is autobiographical: Tejpal, a famous Indian journalist who in 2001 broke a story about top politicians involved in arms deals, causing the defence minister of India and the head of its ruling party to resign, had a similar experience when a plot to kill him was foiled.
His narrator, who writes for a floundering magazine, has also had the occasional exposé, but otherwise is not particularly enthusiastic about his profession, "contaminated by controversy and political scandal, married to commercial vagueness and a tarred balance sheet". The unsympathetic hack's life is not the main plot line - true to its title, the book focuses on the stories of five people arrested for planning to murder him.
Tracing their lives, from the very beginning to the day when the protagonist faces them in a courtroom, Tejpal guides us through the circles of hell that might otherwise have remained completely out of view, shielded by different images of India: the land of ancient cultural traditions, the emerging superpower, the hoops you jump through when your broadband connection is down. What lies beyond those affluent neighbourhoods, with their quaint postcolonial atmosphere and shiny offices of multinational giants, is a sea of poverty, violence and fear.
The narrative takes us to remote villages where never-ending disputes over land bring about horrible crimes - dwellings burnt down, people tortured and killed - that no one bothers to investigate. We see the underbelly of a railway station, where homeless children grow up scrounging, stealing, being gang-raped or falling off roofs, unaware of any other ways of existence. Going further back into history, we witness a massacre of innocent passengers on a train bound for the newly independent Pakistan, the promised land in the eyes of Muslims keen to regain their identity. We meet drug dealers and swindlers, corrupt policemen and brutal landlords as we follow the paths of the alleged killers that have led them to their prison cells.
One of the defendants stands out as a menacing figure whose presence makes people shiver - and not without reason, for this man is known all over the country as a butcher working for an underground movement. They call him a "brain curry" specialist because of his penchant for using a hammer - it is this tool that he grabbed as a 17-year-old to exact revenge on his sister's rapists. He is a lonely soul who wants neither money nor fame, his spectrum of emotions restricted to worshipping his guru, a cunning mafia boss with a cult following, and feeling elated and pure at moments when he kills yet another victim. The only creatures he can relate to are animals: he shares a bed with a pack of dogs and has no desire for any human contact other than those ending in someone's head exploding.
Living in Bangalore, I regarded as a nuisance the stray dogs that roamed through residential streets. So did many of the locals, urging the authorities to exterminate the lot. However, a group of activists spoke against them and won: the strays were taken to a veterinary clinic, neutered and brought back, each to their native corner of the city. On hearing this, I thought there was still hope: so long as a society has individuals who care about such things, it must be possible to mend its other ills, too.
In Tejpal's novel, the only character who never loses hope in the face of all the injustice swallowing the country is the protagonist's mistress. A militant campaigner, she is the one who digs up the stories of the accused, trying to prove that they have been framed. So strong is her passion for truth that her cynical lover, whose dealings with women are always pragmatic and brief, feels bewitched by her, excited by the sheer energy she exudes. He does not himself get too worked up about the fate of the arrested men: they may be dangerous criminals or ordinary losers; what he worries about most is the inconvenience of living under constant police protection.
Whenever I think of my Indian friends, I remember that the majority of those who volunteer to do something about societal problems are, indeed, women. They are usually the ones who run orphanages and collect donations, organise charity events and protest against bigotry. It is probably no coincidence that in The Story of My Assassins men either struggle to survive, often committing crimes in the process, or indulge in a number of innocuous activities: drinking tea, seeking and giving spiritual advice, holding forth on politics, stating the obvious ("This is India, my friend. Why do anything simply if you can do it in a complicated way?") and quoting, time and again, the philosophical conversation between Krishna and Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita. Their own thoughts tend to be expressed aphoristically and, more often than not, drown in florid platitudes such as: "We are all unsung birds of passage in this world."
Such lofty discussions typically take place between those who have enough time on their hands and money in their bank accounts, while they wait for their tea to be served. The rest - the vast majority of the population - go about their business completely unnoticed by the rich and the powerful, unless brandishing weapons in their faces.
The narrator, hiding in his well-padded cocoon, pays little mind to those less privileged. When shocked by something he has never expected to see, for example, finding himself behind the scenes of the clunky state apparatus, he is not given to much analysis. Court officials are all "penguins" to him, a puny lawyer is downgraded to a "sparrow", a policeman labelled a "rodent" - in other words, most humans are nothing but troublesome pests. This comes to an apogee when the protagonist's attention finally turns to a real animal: he is told that his life was saved by a mongrel that lives in his lane, a limping shadow he has always tried to avoid. The dog - that proverbial gun going off at the end, or rather, averting a genuine one away - is what makes the hero step out of his air-conditioned habitat and take a good look around him, realising that he has been conveniently blind to those next to him for too long.
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3: AM magazine.