May 30, 2020
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And Pegasus Is Off...

These stories are precursors to the Booker winner, with similar characters and incidents, and are better

And Pegasus Is Off...
And Pegasus Is Off...
Between The Assassinations
By Aravind Adiga
Picador Pages: 284; Rs. 295
No sooner an Indian writer, hitherto unknown, wins a prestigious international literary award like the Nobel, Booker or Pulitzer, he or she soars skywards like the mythical flying horse Pegasus and is seen by earthlings as an astral phenomenon, an awesome manifestation of the divine. Every time it neighs, they construe it as a message from the divine. Even if it drops a turd, it is regarded as manna sent by the gods. We saw this happen to Vidia Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. We are about to see it happen to Aravind Adiga. He has already started neighing. No one had heard of his name till his novel The White Tiger won this year’s Booker award for the best work of fiction. Hot on the heels of the award comes his collection of short stories Between the Assassinations. It is worthwhile to remember that Adiga wrote the stories first but could find no publisher till after he had written his novel. In many ways, his stories were precursors to his novel: similar characters reappear in different forms and incidents are repeated with minor differences. They make better reading than his prize-winning novel.

Like R.K. Narayan before him, Adiga creates his own locale. Narayan’s Malgudi was a sleepy little town where nothing much happened. Adiga’s Kittur is a small city vibrating with life. It has Hindus of different castes and sub-castes; Muslim Sunnis, Shias and others; Christians, largely Catholic, disdainful of Protestants. It has temples, mosques, cathedrals and churches. It has cinema houses, including one which shows pornographic films. Bazaars crammed with shops, teastalls, cafes, toddy and arrack shops, whorehouses, beggars and pi-dogs. I guess that Kittur is modelled on Mangalore.

Adiga has given his stories a time frame—from the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, to that of her son Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. But search as much as you may, not one of his stories is in anyway connected with either of the two crimes.

The collection of stories begins with a short account of the location and means of getting there. It will stay in the reader’s mind till the end. It is short, free of unnecessary adjectives and to the point: "Kittur is on India’s southwestern coast, in between Goa and Calicut, and almost equidistant from the two. The Arabian Sea is to its west, and the Kaliamma river to its east. The terrain of the town is hilly; the soil is black and mildly acidic. The monsoons arrive in June, and besiege the town through September. The next three months are dry and cool, and are the best time to visit Kittur. Given the town’s richness of history and scenic beauty, and diversity of religion, race and language, a minimum stay of a week is recommended."

The author then picks up his characters one by one and brings Kittur to life. There is a Muslim coolie at the railway station who keeps a count of trains that come from the north on their way to Calicut and eastwards towards Chennai. He takes special note of those that take military personnel and is willing to pass on the information to anyone willing to pay for it. Then there is a man who makes a living photocopying bestsellers and selling them at half the listed prices. Amongst his pirated editions is Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. He is jailed but his son carries on the business. There are workers forever engaged in adding a tower to the cathedral; a man who sells sugar pills as Viagra and curealls for venereal diseases in a dargah and purloined do-it-yourself books and pamphlets on the bus on his way back home; there is a Catholic-run school where boys teach themselves how to make bombs; an affluent, westernised Christian lady kept in luxury in Kittur by her husband who sends his money from the Middle East; and there is the 55-year-old Communist bachelor who explains the finer points of Marx’s dialectical materialism and differences between the different Communist factions in India to an illiterate woman who has just lost her husband—all the while lustfully eyeing her nubile daughter. It is a cross-section of characters which make Kittur a colourful, happening city. Veins of satire and humour flow through all of his stories. Adiga is a born storyteller with a special gift of saying a lot in the briefest of space, specially when describing a location. I adduce another example from his description of the lighthouse of Kittur. "The famous lighthouse, built by the Portuguese and renovated by the British, is no longer in use. An old guard in a blue uniform sits at the base of the lighthouse. If the visitors are poorly dressed, or speak to him in Tulu or Kannada, he will say, ‘Can’t you see it’s closed?’ If the visitors are well-dressed or speak English, he will say: ‘Welcome.’ He will take them into the lighthouse, and up the spiral staircase to the top, which affords a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea."

Between the Assassinations makes good reading. In his hurry to make a quick buck after Adiga’s meteoric rise to fame, the publisher has done a very shoddy job with the collection of stories. It has no contents page and the cover is as uninspiring as any I have seen in recent years.

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