In one of the early stories in Aravind Adiga's second book, a half-caste Hindu boy sets off a bomb at his Catholic boys' school. In the aftermath, he runs to the woods and sits under a statue of Jesus. "He sat at the foot of the dark Jesus, and the tension and thrill slowly left him. He always relaxed around images of Jesus. There was a time when he had thought about converting to Christianity; among Christians there were no castes. Every man was judged by what he had done with his own life. But after the way the Jesuit priests had treated him - caning him once on a Monday morning in the assembly grounds, in full view of the entire school - he had sworn never to become a Christian. There was no better institution to stop Hindus from converting to Christianity than the Catholic boys' school." In that little paragraph lie all the key themes of Between the Assassinations - caste, religion, violence, the loss of dignity.
With The White Tiger behind him, Adiga had set a high bar of expectations for his second book. Between the Assassinations puts up a game fight, but in the final analysis, doesn't come close to the brilliance of the Tiger. This collection of short stories starts with a boy who is proud to be a pathan, a low caste bookseller who is jailed for selling Satanic Verses, and the half-brahmin half-Hoyka boy bombing his classroom. Each story is set in a different part of the small South Indian town of Kittur, a town with a heady mix of castes and religions, India in miniature. The protagonist of each story is from a different community, speaks a different language, worships a different God.
There is one thing though that binds the fate of every character in the book - They are, inevitably, utterly, hopelessly, denied redemption. Always. Assassinations is not a book where you can look for silver linings. Which is one of the more dissatisfying things about it. Not that characters should always, or even often, meet happy endings. The dissatisfying thing is, in these tales of wretchedness, the dark endings are so inevitable (and fall into that pattern so quickly) that the narrative lacks any element of expectancy or tension. You know, as you read, that it is not going to end well. Doesn't matter what the 'it' is - it is not going to end well.
The darkness in Between the Assassinations is equal opportunity. Everyone - Hindu, Muslim, Christian, rich, poor, educated, illiterate - everyone, has overt darkness of character. The only people with squeaky clean characters - and this is the second reason I was annoyed by the book - are the white-skinned men and women of the western world that occassionally walk through these pages. In the midst of an otherwise dark book, this adulation of the purity of the white man strikes me as childish, sentimental, and most damningly, distracting from the character of the rest of the book.
Another nail in the coffin for me was the structure of the novel. Adiga clearly likes experimenting with narrative sructure and technique. In The White Tiger, there was the whole business of the letter to the Chinese Prime Minister. I must admit, that was one of the pieces of the book that resonated least with me. I couldn't quite see the Chinese PM thing fitting with the rest of the book. The problem is much worse with Between the Assassinations. Each story in the book is preceded by a page from a travel guide about Kittur, which tells you a little bit about the particular location this story is going to be set in, which is mildly interesting in bland sort of way. The overall structure is further, for some reason, set in terms of days spent in the city by a visitor - so there is a story for Day One, then Day Two ... and so on. I can honestly say that I didn't get it. I have no idea why the day structure makes any sense, or has any connection with the stories, or adds anything to our feel for Kittur.
And finally, there is the title of the book. Between the Assassinations is a reference to the 7 year period between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. If there is even a vague way in which these political bookends are relevant, it escaped me.
So there it is - another instance of an author coming up with a cracker of a first book, but not being able to quite keep his following on the second. Sometimes, the connection comes back in later works. I hope it does. Because this one, it just didn't click for me.