Something important has happened in India since Aravind Adiga's debut novel The White Tiger - a razor-sharp, darkly comic account of what happens when members of India's shockingly poor classes collude and collide with those of its aggressively consumerist, astonishingly wealthy ones - became the surprise winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008. In May, the Congress Party stormed to an unexpectedly huge victory in the general elections in the world's most populous democracy. Congress had a pronounced emphasis on, and concern for, the welfare of the underprivileged in the rural hinterland rather than the affluent urban elite at the forefront of what is seen to be India's great economic revolution. In the Union Budget presented in Parliament earlier this month, the focus was again on those who are known in India as aam admi (the common/underprivileged man). With the downtrodden now firmly back on politicians' agendas and the country's map for the future, Adiga's collection of loosely linked stories (written before The White Tiger, but now published in a revised version in the UK) seems very much of the moment.
Set in the imaginary town of Kittur on India's south-western coast, the stories are fixed in time between the assassinations of two Indian prime ministers: Indira Gandhi's in 1984 and her son Rajiv Gandhi's in 1991. If the imagined town puts one in mind of RK Narayan and his gently humane, funny fictions based in Malgudi, that notion is quickly dispelled as Adiga goes about assembling his cast of characters. For the most part, this cast comprises drunks, junkies, exploited maids, servants; it is an array of the dispossessed, "a sorrowful parade of humanity" who often seem dehumanised because they seem to barely exist as human beings in the eyes of the privileged and the rich.
Many characters are consumed with rage at the cards life has dealt them. As they see themselves in contrast to the privileged, with whose lives theirs intersect and overlap in many ways, they burn with anger at the injustice of some people having too much, and some so little. At the same time, they are suffused with a sense of deep hopelessness; convinced of their inability to break out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The pull between the rage and the hopelessness provides the stories with their dramatic tension.
Adiga gets under the skin of these characters and writes about them with insight and empathy in a way few other Indians writing in English do today. In "The Cool Water Well Junction", a father addicted to drugs sends his small daughter on an errand to get him smack from the other side of the town. The girl goes, with her little brother, and after an arduous day returns with the little packet. But the brother, exhausted and annoyed by the long journey, comes home and loudly lies that someone had given the girl "a hundred rupees but she never gave me anything to eat or drink". The dark denouement to the story - it takes all of a couple of hundred words - is terrifying.
"Market and Maidan" narrates how a village hick comes to Kittur, is befriended by a local thug, and is then used by him and left wrecked. The violence in these – and the other – stories is casual, the undertow almost always chilling. Towards the end of "Umbrella Street", the story's protagonist, Chenayya, bewildered and browbeaten, thinks: "Somewhere, I hope, a poor man will strike a blow against the world. Because there is no God watching over us."
Over two books, Adiga has never taken his eye off the poor, and he strikes a blow on their behalf. His eye misses nothing, and some of his analogies are delightfully fresh: "perfectly formed clouds" are "like wishes that had been granted"; a seven-storied building, all lit up, seems to be like "a living creature, a kind of monster of light, shining from its entrails".
Between the Assassinations is every bit as sharp, sardonic and compelling as The White Tiger. How strange (or is it?) that it did not at first find a UK publisher, and needed the success of the novel to appear.
Soumya Bhattacharya's memoir 'You Must Like Cricket?' is published by Yellow Jersey