Like an Asian sister city to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, the fictitious town of Kittur, India, is full of anguished souls trying to find their place in the world. They fight, love and struggle their way through the overlapping stories in Between the Assassinations, the nimble new work from Aravind Adiga, the Indian writer who won Britain's Man Booker Prize last year for his savage first novel, The White Tiger. With his latest book, Adiga, 34, strengthens the brash voice that echoed through his debut. A graduate of Columbia and Oxford who grew up in the town of Mangalore (the model for Kittur), he is an insider with an outsider's probing eye, taking the country to task for its shortcomings—corruption, cronyism, inequality, indifference—while pulling for its success.
Assassinations is a precursor to Tiger, which tells the modern-day story of a wily lower-caste chauffeur who gets rich through corruption and violence. The new book covers the period between the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, when, as Adiga explained in a phone interview, "old India should have come to an end," and that of her son Rajiv in 1991, when the country's economy finally began to blossom. Unlike Balram Halwai, the savvy narrator of Tiger, the characters in these stories are paralyzed by their powerlessness. "In the India of The White Tiger, if you break the rules, you can get what you want," says Adiga. "But in Between the Assassinations there is no breaking the rules." In one story, a Muslim factory owner feels terrible that the seamstresses he employs are going blind, but he won't shutter the factory.
As literature, Between the Assassinations feels slighter than The White Tiger. But as a portrait of India, it's far richer and more nuanced, encompassing the perspectives of Muslims, Hindus and Christians; rich and poor; young and old; upper caste and lower. Adiga, a journalist, believes that multiplicity of viewpoints has been missing from contemporary Indian fiction, as well as from the national discourse. "The most patriotic thing a creative artist can do is challenge people to see their country as it is," he says. Indians may not always like what Adiga has to say, but their future depends on his freedom to keep saying it.