My heart is in turmoil and cannot rest;
Days of affliction confront me.
-- Job 30:27
Between the Assassinations can seem like an insignificant book about the distressing problems of people in India. One person I offered it to stopped reading after just a few pages. That's an incorrect reading in my view: This is instead a subtle book that has important things to say about the mind-forged manacles that bind us.
At first the points that are made seem to capture situations that are beyond the control of those who are subject to them. We do face situations where there will be no good physical outcome, and that's a valid part of the experience of poor and uneducated people ... especially those who are also discriminated against. Mr. Adiga soon begins to nudge past that point to show that even in bad situations, there are choices: And some choices are better than others. We have the freedom to choose the dignity of the better choices; however, many people brush aside such opportunities and simply do what feels best to them in the moment. Beyond that, Between the Assassinations points out the rather awkward truth that even those with lots of choices will often fail to make those choices, or select awful ones.
Let me share one small anecdote that illustrates poor choices in the story about a Brahmin woman who lives as an unmarried, unpaid servant because her parents could not afford a dowry for her. Resentful at this loss of status, she begins to envy those around her . . . even a Christian neighbor. It suddenly occurs to her that if she does enough sinful things, she may be reincarnated as a Christian . . . and she delights at the thought. Naturally, it never occurs to her to simply become a Christian and change her life circumstances.
Some might complain that the book leaves little room for hope: I didn't read the book that way. Instead, the book portrays people being their own worst enemies (whether they do bad things to themselves or others do bad things to them) in such ironic ways that you can only conclude that a little rationality could quickly replace most of the worst problems, along with a willing heart to look out for others. In that sense, this is a deeply spiritual book suggesting that the problems portrayed are simply ones that can be eliminated by proper living. In one of the final stories, a Brahmin communist (probably a rare combination) shakes off his long-accustomed menial duties to help a widow who has a lovely daughter. With a little knowledge, the widow's financial problems are solved. The communist, however, cannot solve his own problems: Seeking a fantasy of marrying the lovely daughter even though he is man in his mid-fifties and the family is no longer penniless, thanks to him.
As Job suffered long and hard before God restored him to twice what he had before, Mr. Adiga implies that India has great days ahead . . . when it begins to draw on its talented people in a kind and mutually supportive way to share knowledge, resources, favor, and respect. I think he's right.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.