x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Paper tigers

Books Before Aravind Adiga's crudely moralising novel, he wrote crudely moralising short stories, S Subramanian finds.

The train is still arriving in Kittur station: Adiga's social messages feel tired and shallow, as unreal as the people they purport to affect.
The train is still arriving in Kittur station: Adiga's social messages feel tired and shallow, as unreal as the people they purport to affect.

Before Aravind Adiga's crudely moralising novel, he wrote crudely moralising short stories, S Subramanian finds.

Between the Assassinations Aravind Adiga Picador Dh22 (currently only available in India)

In one sense, the fictional village of Malgudi was under subconscious construction throughout the youth of its creator, the Indian novelist RK Narayan. In another sense, it was born with a single sentence. "I first pictured not my town but just the railway station, which was a small platform with a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming and one going," Narayan once said. One day in the 1930s, he simply sat down and wrote the first sentence of what would eventually become Swami and Friends: "The train had just arrived in Malgudi Station."

Malgudi needed only two trains a day. It was a small south Indian village, an assemblage of details from Narayan's own upbringing in Madras and Mysore. A reader had to intuitively sense that the village lay within Tamil Nadu or Karnataka; Narayan himself refused to specify its geography, offering only the red herring of a hint that it sat on the banks of the (equally fictitious) river Sarayu. But over the span of 14 novels and dozens of short stories, this drowsy village impressed itself deeply upon the country's literary imagination as a microcosm of India, and of rural India in particular. Malgudi has come to be compared so routinely to other important fictional territories like Thomas Hardy's Wessex or William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County that we have forgotten what that means: a literary stage walked by a rich cast of characters, each of their time and yet not defined exclusively by it.

It is no coincidence that Aravind Adiga's book of short stories, Between the Assassinations (written before his Booker-prize winning debut The White Tiger, but just now published in India), also begins at a railway station. The station is in the fictional town of Kittur, which a short prefatory note locates on India's western coast, between Goa and Calicut. To really understand the town, Adiga writes, "a minimum stay of a week is recommended." He gives himself 12 stories.

Narayan and Adiga lived through inarguably the two most exciting periods of modern Indian history - the former through India's birth as an independent country, the latter through India's birth as an economic contender. But Malgudi feels timeless, a compact bubble only occasionally nudged by drafts of air from the outside world. In Narayan's lore, the two most famous people to have ever visited the village are Lord Rama and Mahatma Gandhi, and one imagines they both found a similar Malgudi waiting for them.

The mere presence of Mahatma Gandhi in any novel functions as a lurid red time stamp. In Waiting for the Mahatma, however, Narayan refuses to let it be much more. The Mahatma's public meetings turn out to be occasions for Sriram, a young Malgudi idler, to spot and fall in love with a girl named Bharati, a member of the Quit India Movement. The Mahatma's ideals, which powered the freedom movement of an entire nation, become elements in Sriran's individual chivalric quest to prove his worth. Seeking to impress Bharati, he turns into an activist and is subsequently imprisoned. As Pankaj Mishra once noted: throughout the novel "Indians are making of the Freedom Movement whatever suits their private narrow ends." In their "dull, marginal lives, Gandhi comes as yet another kind of periodic distraction."

Adiga, by contrast, wants very anxiously to be a timely writer. Perhaps this is a partial legacy of his career as a journalist. The very title of his new compilation situates his stories in time - between the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi, in 1984, and that of her son Rajiv Gandhi while he was campaigning to be prime minister (for the second time) in 1991. From this basket of seven years, Adiga gathers up every evil of modern India (there is apparently little of virtue to be found in Kittur) and flings them at his characters like poison-tipped darts: casteism, suppression of free expression, terrorism, a "disease of sex" that might be Aids, extreme poverty, corruption. Alexander McCall Smith once called Narayan "a novelist of little things"; Adiga wants to be a novelist of big things, of Major Social Problems.

If Kittur is defined by anything, it is by its restlessness with class distinctions. The town's residents fret and act almost wholly in a quest for more respect, more status and more social worth. In that first story, untitled like the rest, a 12-year-old boy named Ziauddin, a gopher at a teashop near the railway station, is nearly enticed into terrorism because a fair-skinned stranger treats him with dignity and warmth. Elsewhere, a schoolboy of a lower caste sets off an explosive in a classroom to make a vague protest against casteism. Jayamma, an old servant and cook, longs for her freedom, if only so that she can go home and play with her nephew. George D'Souza, a mosquito-repellent sprayer, elevates himself to gardener and then chauffeur to the lovely, young Mrs Gomes, and then loses it all when he attempts to be something more.

For all its Booker-winning glory and commercial success in Britain, Adiga's The White Tiger, was rightly dismissed by many Indian reviewers. Its core dichotomy - Poor India v. Rich India - was unoriginal as well as simplistic, and its protagonist, a chauffeur named Balram Halwai who moves to New Delhi from a small village, rang false. The book creaked under its very conceit: a series of open letters from Halwai (who calls himself, in a nifty turn of English for a poorly educated villager, "a half-baked man") to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. (Halwai, incidentally, also seethed with fury at being trapped in his class; Adiga sees the frustration of immobility as the leitmotif of modern India.) Perhaps it says something about what publishers outside India think are the more marketable stories of the country that Between the Assassinations, which was roundly rejected by every British and American publisher that read it, is the more nuanced of the two books.

For a start, Adiga's grip on his setting and his characters is more secure. In its geography - coastal town, hilly terrain, large river -and its ethnic and religious muddle of people, Kittur sounds very much like Mangalore, where Adiga's parents are from and where he went to school. His patois is weak and neutral - certainly no match for Narayan, who somehow conveyed the lilts and inflections of spoken Tamil in English - but it does not sound forced and fake, as in The White Tiger. The tendency of the stories in Between the Assassinations to end quickly, seemingly before they're fully told, transforms us into visitors wandering around Kittur, witnessing little chunks of theatre before moving on, lives playing out their remainder behind us.

Adiga's familiarity with his terrain also sharpens his eye for detail. In one story, he takes us through Saint Alfonso High School, so close in name to Adiga's own St Aloysius High School that surely not all the descriptions can be fictional. Mr D'Mello, a Hindi teacher, favours one pupil above all others, a sincere, meek specimen named Girish who stands out from the crowd of his noisy, hormone-ridden peers. The teacher attempts to shield Girish from the vulgarities of the world, and to boost him to a level of success he himself never achieved. Along the way, Adiga spins some deft details: the uniform attire of the male teachers, "light-coloured half-sleeve shirts, closely checked, with brown or blue pants that widened into bell-bottoms"; the pathetic earnestness of Free Film Day, a ritual screening of scratchy educational shorts like Save the Tiger, scorned equally by boys and masters; the typically fatuous topic for a school debate, "Science - A Boon or Curse for the Human Race?"

But there is little else to this story, or indeed to Between the Assassinations, apart from these isolated nuggets of observation. Adiga is so concerned with hitting certain notes that he forgets about the music. His characters are dreamt up not to live, but to be relevant to the moralistic agenda of their particular story. Shankara, the half-caste schoolboy who wants to blow up his chemistry classroom, is defined entirely by that half-caste status; he has no other worries, no other world. Kamini and Giridhar Rao, a married couple, are childless - and their childlessness swamps their story, drowning all personality and thought. The social messages (much the same as those of The White Tiger) mounted on these cardboard constructs feel tired and shallow, as unreal as the people they purport to affect. In his single-minded quest to make his characters abjectly and persistently Indians of their time, Adiga has skipped the crucial first step of making them human.

S Subramanian, a regular contributor to The Review, is a journalist based in New Delhi.