Between the Assassinations examines India's ravaged hopes

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      Between the Assassinations

      By Aravind Adiga. Free Press, 352 pp, $32, hardcover

      With his acclaimed debut novel, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga emerged as an acute observer of contemporary India. His caustic and engrossing story was heralded for its highly critical portrayal of class differences and modernization, and won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

      His latest book, Between the Assassinations, is a collection of 14 short stories set in the imaginary town of Kittur, on the southwestern coast of India, a place whose crippling desperation and corruption echo the Mumbai-based author's previous depiction of his home country.

      The assassinations of the title are those of Indian prime ministers Indira Gandhi, in October 1984, and her eldest son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1991. These slayings and their ramifications have little effect on the residents of Kittur, where daily life, as described in one story, is “an installment plan of troubles and horrors” and is spent contending with debilitating poverty, caste divisions, and individual survival.

      In “The Bunder”, a factory owner is torn between closing his factory and continuing to employ workers who will eventually be blinded by their labour. A penniless villager arrives in Kittur and succeeds as a bus conductor, only to lose everything in “Market and Maidan”.

      The stories are blanketed by desolation, and both hope and defiance are tainted. “Valencia (To the First Crossroads)” focuses on a woman who believes that her only chance to escape servitude is to be reincarnated as a Christian. “Lighthouse Hill” introduces a bibliophile who endures imprisonment and broken legs but is determined to sell a banned copy of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

      Among the most powerful works are “The Cool Water Well Junction”, a chilling tale of a daughter's love and her dutiful mission to beg for her father's drug money, and “Angel Talkies”, in which a newspaper editor suffers an emotional collapse, the consequence of his frustration with media censorship.

      Unlike the immediacy of The White Tiger, the stories in Assassinations are nuanced, yet no less keenly observed. Here, Adiga foregoes satire to produce narratives where the spite ebbs and flows, surfacing in dialogue and sudden moments of violence.