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Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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A-Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga, who won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for The White Tiger ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2009), explores the dark underbelly of his native India in this short story collection, which he completed before his acclaimed debut novel. It takes place between the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and that of her son in 1991.

The Story: The fictional town of Kittur (based on Adiga's native Mangalore), on the southwestern coast of India, represents all of India's religious, ethnic, and caste contradictions. Ziauddin, a Muslim boy, works in a tea shop and steals from his employers. Xerox peddles pirated books-a step up from his parents' occupations as waste collectors-despite his numerous arrests. Shankara, a half-Brahmin, protests the caste system by setting off a bomb at his Jesuit school. Ratnakara Shetty, a sham sexologist, finally finds meaning in his occupation. These characters and others, many downtrodden and having few options in life, simply try to survive. As one says, "nothing ever changes. Nothing will ever change."
Free Press. 339 pages. $24. ISBN: 9781439152928

Dallas Morning News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The hearts of his characters are where Adiga reveals the greatest depth and breadth, spanning the ages from youth to late maturity. ... Adiga creates these, and other distinctive characters, with the ease of a god, and deftly tells their sometimes comical, often tragic stories against the backdrop of an often corrupt, and sometimes lovely South Asian world." Alan Cheuse

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"With richly detailed descriptions of life in Kittur, from the cart puller to the journalist to the scion of the town's richest man, Adiga achieves in a dozen pages what many novels fail to do in hundreds: convincingly render individual desire, disappointment and survival. ... In many ways, the vignettes in Between the Assassinations flesh out the question at the heart of The White Tiger: Where is the justice in one man ruling another simply though the accident of his birth?" Lee Thomas

Newsweek 4 of 5 Stars
"As a portrait of India, it's far richer and more nuanced [than The White Tiger], encompassing the perspectives of Muslims, Hindus and Christians; rich and poor; young and old; upper caste and lower. ... Indians may not always like what Adiga has to say, but their future depends on his freedom to keep saying it." Susan H. Greenberg

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Of course, all this could have been no more than a series of serious-minded tableaux about poverty and disenfranchisement, worthy like a Booker-winner, but not all that enjoyable to read. But we soon notice the skill with which the tales have been unified, made to coalesce around reality." Stephen Abell

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What emerges is not so much a moral biography of an Indian town as the autopsy of a morally dead town. ... By and large the stories follow a Chekhovian pattern. Characters have deeply felt longings but must accept that life will not change, and the inevitable has to be endured." Vikas Swarup

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Adiga's] conceit of a walking tour about the town provides a way to open his vignettes with descriptions and brief bits of history. The reader is tourist and witness. Kittur emerges as the real protagonist." Sandra Scofield

Times (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Adiga] has said he wants to portray the underclass that forms the vast bulk of India's population-and when he turns his attentions to the well-off pupils at St Alfonso's Boys' High School or the denizens of a salubrious suburb at the edge of a forest, the stories are less engaging. ... Its constituent parts sometimes lack much in the way of structure or resolution, but are always lively and keenly observed." Peter Parker

Critical Summary

Inspired by Balzac's La Com├ędie Humaine, Adiga intended to write a portrait of Indian life; as such, place and theme, rather than characters, tie together these 14 stories. Each starts with a travel vignette-a daylong walk around a different section of Kittur-that introduces the town. But, as he did in The White Tiger, Adiga soon delves deeper to focus on class and caste inequalities and characters "paralyzed by their powerlessness" (Newsweek). His meticulous descriptions of men, women, and children from all walks of life offer insight into modern India, one where few such as these experience redemption. Some reviewers commented on the unevenness of the stories and the lack of overall plot, but all agreed on Adiga's important role as "a sensitive chronicler of modern India" (Telegraph).