Train-station underbelly

Tejpal´s contemporary India masquerading as fiction.

The Story of My Assassins by Tarun J Tejpal, HarperCollins, 2009

Departing from the superficial level to which much Indian writing in English has been relegated in recent years, The Story of My Assassins is a superb treatise on contemporary India masquerading as fiction. Tarun Tejpal brings to life the grim realities of India's socio-political underbelly, all the while telling a fascinating yet deeply disturbing story. The book revolves around a failed journalist who is suddenly made aware of a plot to assassinate him. The government provides him with high security cover, even as he remains confused about what is actually going on. Meanwhile, his girlfriend suggests that his supposed killers are, in fact, all being framed. Curious to know the truth, the journalist attempts to track the histories of each of the five men arrested for plotting his murder. Thus, five fascinating lives are unravelled, each replete with its own intrigues and complexities.

In this work, it is easy to see a combination of the two Tejpals that make up the man – the journalist and the novelist. Having now headed the fiery Tehelka for nine years, Tejpal is no stranger to the goings-on in the underbelly of power, and has evolved as a socially engaged journalist determined to expose the wrongdoings of the powerful. As a novelist, however, he is prepared to be subversive, something at which he achieves great success. Writing fiction, he seems to be revelling in speaking out, a desire that perhaps remains otherwise unfulfilled.

Much of today's Indian English-language authorship tends to use some version of the 'India shining' brand to market itself. On the contrary, Tejpal counts as one of the rare breed of authors and filmmakers – figures such as Aravind Adiga, for example, and perhaps Danny Boyle – who make a case for India as it is. As such, considering that India is a conundrum even to its inhabitants, this new work is a notably brave attempt to go beyond the obvious. At its very core, Assassins "is a journey into the heart of power, the exploration of power," Tejpal said on the eve of the launch. A reading confirms the author's claim. Rising above the obvious, and interspersed with dark humour, Assassins is an unnervingly gripping tale on the use and abuse of power in modern-day India.

Tejpal's ability to evoke atmosphere is seen in his description of the courtroom, presenting one of the most convincing deconstructions of the uniquely and inimitably Indian style in which the institution functions. Tejpal's text breathes life into this impregnable fortress of justice, a place that hundreds of thousands of Indians are forced to endure every day. The Indian courtroom and the black-robed lawyers who control it – 'penguins', as Tejpal calls them – have never been portrayed more proficiently, in this reviewer's opinion. While the travails of a litigant are too apparent to deserve mention, a peek into the psyche of the dispensers of justice merits Tejpal's sardonic attention. Here is how the author had one 'penguin' react to a sales call:

No Madam, I need no loan. Not for home, or marriage, or car or carriage. I would marry again but my wife eats two spoons of Chawanprash every day and does not look like she'll die for another hundred years … No, no, madam, don't go yet! Wait I have something to tell you too! Is there anyone in your family who has been raped or murdered or committed suicide? Madam, my law firm specializes in handling cases of rape and murder. No, no madam, you cannot just go now – you called me, you must listen to me now. 

Mosaic of chaos
Mundane subjects come alive under Tejpal's pen. The New Delhi railway station, for example, will no longer be the same for readers who have passed through its portals dozens of times without an afterthought. The shady touts who have made the station their haven are generally a matter of little interest for the average traveller. That their lives can evoke such fascination is a singular contribution of Assassins. These men of rough ways and sorry appearance are central to the narrative, and presented as subjects of profound interest. Stop a minute to reflect on the lad who cleans mineral water bottles at the railway junction. How much does he earn? Who introduced him to this job? How does he avoid the cops? Which station does he live near, and does he have friends?

Clearly this book is the result of research. Chini – perhaps the most common Indian racial stereotype, and a term used to describe one of the assassins – makes the station a site of unrivalled intrigue. Tejpal's portrayal of how this assassin, himself an outcast, fashions himself, the ways in which he operates at the station and the twists in life that bring him to where the reader finds him – these cannot be documented with this level of authenticity without the author having spent time delving deep into the lives of the 'common man'. A world that is our own, yet alien, is brought to life with literary elegance.

Somewhat peripheral to the storyline of Assassins, but of no less interest, is Tejpal's brief but perceptive account of live, round-the-clock television. The manic newsroom is presented to the reader at the very start of the novel. Once news breaks that a plot to murder the novel's main protagonist has been foiled, the producers jumpstart their attempts to get this person on the air, to give his own "authentic" version of events:

The studio girl said, "Thank you for coming on our channel exclusively! How are you feeling now?" I said, "Okay". "Are you badly shaken by the events?" "Yes". "Have you been receiving any threats lately?" "No". "Do you have any idea who the killers are?" "No" … "What do you plan to do now?" Eat the egg pulled out of the hen's ass. "I haven't thought of it yet." "What did you do when you got to know?" "Nothing" … "There was a moment's silence at the other end. Much too long for live television to stomach. Then the voice said even more urgently, "Thank you for coming exclusively on our channel and giving us the first exclusive insights into your murder!" 

While some may call Tejpal cynical in such samplings, anyone who has watched an Indian 24×7 news channel will understand his frustrations. The newsroom, exciting but also deeply worrying on occasions, is a potent metaphor for contemporary India, a puzzle that Assassins has boldly attempted to unravel. In trying to deconstruct the hierarchy of power – the complex relationship between the landlord and the tenant, the hit man and his patron, the lawyer and his client, the mistress and her obdurate lover, and finally the state and its citizens – Assassins seems to have successfully departed from the conventional Indian fiction in English.

~ Boria Majumdar is with La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, and is the editor of several sports journals.

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