Kittur is a small fictional city in India, nestled on the coast south of Goa and sharing something of that state's cosmopolitan heritage. Between the Assassinations offers an extensive guided tour, scrutinising the diverse lives of those thronging Aravind Adiga's everytown in the period between the deaths of Indira Ghandi in 1984 and Rajiv Ghandi in 1991.
Adiga doesn't have to scratch hard to grub up some enjoyably spirited characters. Shankara is the privileged son of an absent Brahmin plastic surgeon and a low-caste "Hoyka" woman. Schoolboy taunts about his mixed-caste identity fuel an alienation that leads to his inept concoction of a fertiliser bomb that he detonates in his science class. Exultation evaporates into shame – not for the prank, but for its humiliating impact on his teacher, after Shankara had endured so much humiliation himself.
Xerox, a seller of photocopied books, has a familiar and deferential manner with the local police, who routinely arrest him for copyright infringement. Usually release follows, after tall stories in the cells with tea and samosas. Hawking Rushdie's Satanic Verses, however, brings him broken bones, and a steely determination to defy the authorities.
Upset to find that detailed needlework was sending his female workforce blind, Abbasi closed his garment factory, only to re-open after convincing himself that another owner would exploit the workers similarly. His guilt turns to outrage at the volume of officials seeking bribes from him, but his indignant routing of two tax inspectors brings more anxiety than triumph.
Gradually, these ostensibly genial vignettes give way to darker stories in which Adiga's underlying theme of the corruption and injustice woven into the fabric of Indian society takes on a more menacing aspect. Keshava's story, of working his way up from street sleeper to bus conductor and the favour of the local kingpin before being abandoned after a work accident, is heavy with the casual brutality of indigent life. Fired with anger and zealous to better himself, Chennaya toils away as a delivery-cart puller, but finds his humble career aspirations thwarted by venal employers.
These punitive lives steadily accumulate into a simmering outrage at the injustice of poverty and caste discrimination, both in principle and in muscle-knotted, exhausted, hungry, desperate reality. In The White Tiger, his rollicking debut that scooped the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Adiga fashioned this background outrage into a motive force for his snappy plot. The protagonist of that novel, Balram, finds his righteous indignation at the brutally enforced servitude of Indian society hardening into a ruthless argument for murder. This motive force is notably absent from Between the Assassinations, and is the principle detraction from an otherwise eloquent novel that is braced with pent-up fury and all the more disturbing for its lack of any vent or resolution. Following the zesty character of Balram and his wittily confessed moral adventuring with a slow-paced, impressionistic collage of linked stories is a courageous choice for that tricky second novel.
The overlapping lives in Between the Assassinations have some resonance with Shifts, Adam Thorpe's skilfully crafted collection of short stories that subtly unpicked a variety of occupations, as well as with Jon McGregor's intense debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. But McGregor bound his diffuse observations of discrete minor events into a cohesive whole. It is this overarching sense of purpose that seems most lacking from Adiga's melée of vibrant characters, and lends his novel the ambience of outtakes or supporting sketches for a work in progress. The replication, in one of the better stories here, of the crucial event in The White Tiger – a drunken boss killing a pedestrian, bribing the judiciary and forcing a servant to take the rap – only reinforces this sense.
After Balram's vim there is surprisingly little comedy here. Adiga restrains his colourful prose to the hardship of his material. A few descriptions are luminous (the failed Jesuit whose potbelly is "a hard knot of flesh pregnant with a dozen cardiac arrests" fittingly dies of a coronary in a porno cinema), but such serendipitous flashes are few. Mostly these lives are harsh or bleak, with little redemption amid the presiding emotions of shame, envy or regret. Moral complexities give texture and depth to most of Adiga's conflicted or oppressed characters, but the landscape of endemic corruption and relentless contempt for the have-nots makes Between the Assassinations a forceful, sobering interlude.