Call it the Slumdog Millionaire effect. Sooner or later, any writer who attempts to create fiction from the lives of India’s dispossessed will be accused of ‘poverty tourism’. In Between the Assassinations, Aravind Adiga anticipates the charge, linking a dozen or so short stories with extracts from a guidebook to the fictional south-western town of Kittur. More than just a convenient framing device, this bogus Baedeker serves as a reminder that, when it comes to understanding the lives of the poor, tourism is the only option.
Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning first novel, The White Tiger, portrayed the irresistible rise of Balram Halwai, village boy made good, triumphant example of the new India’s social mobility, psychopath and murderer. None of the characters in Between the Assassinations quite has Balram’s unquenchable will to power; they tend to be a little more bruised and battered. Yet if the new book does not share its predecessor’s feverish intensity, it makes up for it in breadth of focus.
From the railway station to a building site, the Catholic boys’ school to the market by the water, the writer swoops around Kittur as if playing with Google Earth. All human life is here. A Tamil labourer forces his children to buy him drugs. The middle-class son of