- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
October 5, 2012 7:41 pm
The Story of My Assassins, by Tarun Tejpal, Melville House, RRP£17.99/$27.95, 544 pages
Tarun Tejpal, in his second novel, makes few concessions to the non-Indian reader. This quasi-autobiographical tale, ostensibly about a magazine editor targeted for assassination, bristles with Hindi swear words and references to life in Delhi that may at first baffle those unfamiliar with India. Perseverance pays. This richly detailed story transcends the narrow world of Delhi journalism to examine the modernisation and urbanisation of the world’s biggest democracy and the effects of these chaotic processes on India’s 1.2bn people.
It is, in that sense, Dickensian, with Tejpal’s New Delhi in place of Victorian London, and his moving descriptions of the sweaty underbelly of contemporary Indian life mirroring the earlier portrayal of the British industrial revolution. There are, however, no convincing happy endings in this book. And Tejpal does not flinch at describing the sexual violence as well as other extreme injustices in the lives of India’s underclasses.
Tejpal’s first novel, The Alchemy of Desire (2005), was well received, as was this book when it was published in India in 2009. Yet he is better known for his work as a campaigning journalist. The founder of Tehelka, one of India’s best news magazines, he is famous for having launched a sting operation a decade ago that exposed the corruption in Indian arms procurement and prompted the resignation of a minister. The death threats that followed were among the “actual events” on which Assassins is based but the semi-autobiographical parts of this book are the least satisfying. It is hard to empathise with its cynical, self-hating, unnamed protagonist.
Where the novel consistently grasps the reader’s attention, and even touches on greatness, is in its treatment of the would-be assassins. Woven into the plot are the life stories of the five men sent to kill our anti-hero, starting with Chaaku (“The Knife”), an army child from a village in Haryana who slashes the bullying son of the landlord and is forced to flee, and ending with Hathoda (“The Hammer”) Tyagi, a violent but naive hitman exploited by a mafia don.
In-between is Kabir, whose family is traumatised by a massacre of village boys on their way by train to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition (the sleeping victims sigh like cattle as they die: “Actually – as with cattle – the herders were making more noise than the belaboured animals”). And then there are Kaaliya and Chini, two crooks who have somehow survived an earlier life as Delhi street children.
Tejpal’s otherwise uneven prose soars in these relentlessly depressing but humane and well-researched accounts of life in modern India, which represent the core of the book. The five criminals, along with their relatives, friends and enemies, are the fictional complements to the real-life Mumbai slum-dwellers in Pulitzer prize-winner Katherine Boo’s recent book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Tejpal, with the freedom fiction affords, paints on a broader canvas that stretches from Assam to the Punjab as well as New Delhi.
This is the world where the powerful, whether gangsters or supposedly respectable landlords, use gang rape of women or boys as a means of social control; where the powerless take vengeance with hammers, knives and home-made pistols; and where self-styled religious gurus sell “the solution” – toxic correcting fluid – to children who inhale to forget the stench and violence of their daily lives: “Salushan Baba, the old man who came to the no man’s land beyond platform six every evening, bringing them the magic potion, never said a word. No sales pitch, no hustling, no small talk. Selling water in the desert doesn’t call for promotions.”
Most of the important institutions of India – government, justice, the police, parliament, the abiding systems of caste and class, not to mention journalism itself – are found grotesquely wanting. Jai, our protagonist’s colleague and the closest thing he has to a friend, likes to titillate his elegant Delhi social circle with the colourful details and characters involved in the case, and “the fools he regaled” never realise they are part of the problem; one senses here that Tejpal must feel the same way about some of his English-speaking Indian readers.
Tejpal is a consummate crafter of political and social aphorisms of particular relevance to India: rules, one policeman realises, “were not what were written in the book, but what everyone had agreed to follow”; schools, Kabir discovers, seem like equalising mixer-grinders but “when you emerge on the other side what remains unshredded and intact are class, caste, religion and wealth”.
The power of The Story of My Assassins lies not in these tidy generalisations but in its handling of the messy detail of steel and flesh – a whole page is dedicated to the pros and cons of the screwdriver as a weapon – and in its portrayal of the imagined feelings of common criminals, as much sinned against as sinning, in the mayhem of today’s India.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s South Asia bureau chief
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.