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Book Review: Between The Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

There's a literary tradition of creating a series of stories that are tied together by their location. By creating a series of vignettes featuring the lives of a variety of individuals who live in a community the author attempts to leave readers with an overall impression of what life is like in the locale. Probably the most famous of these types of collections were 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 Assassinations, published by Simon And Schuster Canada, Aravind Adiga tries his hand at the same thing with the city of Kittur on the south west coast of India. The assassinations of the title 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 of course important events in the history of India. Sandwiched between the two, the "life as normal" scenes depicted by Adiga, are a history of a sort that you don't normally read in text books.

Adiga has laid the book out as if it were a tourist guide to the region. He starts off by telling you that in order to properly "do" Kittur you need seven days, and the book is divided up into those seven days. While some areas of the city might take a full day to explore, others only take part of a day, so you'll find some chapters will take a whole day and others only a morning or an afternoon. Needless to say the guidebook descriptions for each chapter are rather tongue in cheek as the landmarks include a pornographic movie theatre, a cathedral that's never been completed, a historic monument that's fallen into disrepair, and violent slum. Kittur seems best known for being half way between a couple of other places and having a very high population of lower caste Hoyka people. In fact of the total population of Kittur only 89 people self identify as being without religion or caste.
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Therefore 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 does under their shadow and they're a constant presence lurking in the backs of people's minds. For 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 up by location. However your guides change by day and location, and the perspective they offer on the sites they are responsible for showing off isn't one that you'd normally find offered by 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 be likely to 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 allies where the poor sleep? I don't think they'd appreciate it either if their guides ran a sideline 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.
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While the majority of the characters we meet in Between The Assassinations are those who feel the weight of caste and class the heaviest on their shoulders Adiga doesn't become just give us one group's perspective as so many others seem to have developed a habit of doing. For 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.

However, 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 released in North America set in India 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. For instead of themes like religious violence or corruption being the focus, they are 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 Kittur. 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 there. In the same way turning the tube of a kaleidoscope changes the image that one sees through its viewfinder, each chapter offers 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 designated dates like the assassinations of major figures in society, individual's stories are continually being played out, and taken together they form the story of the place where they live.

Between The Assassinations is being released in North America on June 9th/2009 by Simon and Schuster and can either be purchased directly from them or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

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