A few pages into the book, a peripheral character quotes W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, inspired by Pieter Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, a 16th century painting in the Brussels museum that lends its name to the poem. She goes on to explain: “Wystan’s telling us that fascism is creeping up all around us, and we don’t even know!... Just because the newspapers keep coming, the televisions keep humming, the planes keep taking off, the trains keep running—just because our daily crap goes on doesn’t mean all is well.”
City rat: A part of Tejpal’s book is set in Lutyens’ Delhi, where one of his protagonists works as a journalist. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Though it’s directed at the protagonist, a hard-boiled New Delhi-based journalist, the real target of the speech is very much the reader, the city-bred, English-educated beneficiary of the Indian boom. With The Story of My Assassins, Tehelka editor and novelist Tarun J. Tejpal closes that distance we maintain from the heartland and gives deafening voice to that niggling feeling we all have, that all is not well with India.
The unease sets in early: The first part of the book, delineating the unnamed narrator’s day after television flashes the news that he has survived an assassination attempt, is also the most difficult to read. The alienated protagonist is a difficult trick to pull off, but Tejpal uses him effectively to bookend what was always the core story: the five assassins who represent—in more graphic ways than has been attempted in Indian fiction in English—the Other India.
There’s no attempt here at the superficial cleverness that marred Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger; none of the art or idealism that gently seeped into Amitava Kumar’s Bihar-centric Home Products. The badlands are wasted expanses where violence equals power, the majority caste rules supreme and the meek survive only at someone else’s mercy. Tejpal’s story goes back to pockets in Haryana, Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and the fringes of Delhi, but it could as well have played out in any one of the many parts of India threatening to slip from governmental control, from Naxalite-infested Chhattisgarh to the North-East.
To overcome their battered family histories and brutalized childhoods, five young men discover they can only depend on their skills with knives and car locks, hammers and pistols, their dextrous fingers and quick tongues. Are they the killers? Or are they the victims? And where exactly do they fit into the life of the Delhi journo?
In the somewhat meandering hunt for answers, Tejpal cuts a wide, sneering swathe through contemporary India. The fingers point to politicians and bureaucrats, of course, but there is little about society today that escapes his vicious pen: Bleeding-heart activists, prosperous businessmen, illicit arms traders and corrupt police forces all come under attack even as he tilts his hat at traditional livelihoods and lifestyles snuffed out by unthinking winds of change.
In a swirl that teeters on this side of the surreal, the effort to make sense of the power pillars of the state—judiciary, law and order, security, finance—hits just the right note of the ridiculous with this conversation:
“‘But who wanted me killed? What does your chargesheet say?’
He said, ‘Pakistan.’
I said, ‘Pakistan.’
He said, ‘The ISI. You know, their secret agency… If we had the powers they have, we could clean up this miserable country. Get rid of every traitor, get rid of all the dogs, like the men who took a contract to kill you.’”
The truth, of course, lies elsewhere, and it comes to light in a surprisingly tender conclusion. Strangely, in no way does that undermine the unnerving ride into the heart of darkness that comprises the bulk of the book.
That is not to say The Story of My Assassins is a flawless work. The sex scenes here are far less organic than in the author’s debut novel The Alchemy of Desire, and some of the recognizable references to a tottering magazine’s funding issues and a website’s sting operation on suspect defence deals seem to play to the gallery. Characters don’t speak in sentences, they declaim in paragraphs, and as if to ensure the readers don’t get lost in the forest of words, crucial references are repeated time and again, whether it’s quotes from Kabir, predictions from an astrologer or references from the Gita.
Yet, Tejpal brings a conviction to his story that is hard to ignore. A few years ago, a film called Omkara opened multiplex eyes to heartland realities. The Story of My Assassins does it again, many times over. Some truths are easier consumed through art.
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