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“Aravind Adiga’s Indictment”  

(The TLS, September 2016)  


Aravind Adiga's Indictment 
On the fiction of Aravind Adiga and his new novel  
The TLS, September 23, 2016 

By Hirsh Sawhney  

In 1991 India’s ailing quasi-socialist economy fell into a full-blown crisis and the country’s leaders began loosening state control over industry, opening doors to private and foreign investment. These IMF-backed measures, popularly known as “liberalization”, elated affluent Indians and business people across the world, who were confident that the measures would cure India’s economic stagnancy and corruption. The grave sociopolitical problems that defined pre-liberalization India underpin Aravind Adiga’s penetrating collection of stories Between the Assassinations (2008). In one of these tales, “The Bunder”, a man named Abbasi owns a factory where women sew dragons onto the backs of shirts destined for American ballroom dancers. He loathes this business which causes his female factory workers to go blind due to the intricacy of their labours. A ceaseless stream of government officials drop by in search of bribes. Abbasi does small things to vent his frustration.  He plays snooker and sips bootlegged Johnny Walker Red Label; he spits in the whisky he serves to bribe-seekers, or sullies their drinks with faecal matter. One day, two lowly officials in polyester shirts show up to extort money, and he can’t take it anymore. He refuses to pay, and they flee his office. Abbasi is a typical character in Adiga’s fiction: his efforts to earn a living in a corrupt and hierarchical society have turned him into both a victim and a victimizer. Even his seemingly empowering decision is unlikely to free him from his frustration. 

Adiga shifted his gaze to post-liberalization India in his first two novels, The White Tiger (2008) – which was published before Between the Assasinations but written after it – and Last Man in Tower (2011), and yet little has changed for characters in these books. Privatization and global capital have given rise to call centres and an impressive GDP, but the violence and corruption have merely been exacerbated. These darkly humorous and tautly plotted novels use stark imagery to illustrate the growing divide between rich and poor. In Last Man in Tower Adiga describes a Mumbai beach where residents of a nearby slum come to defecate; just a few feet away “bankers, models, and film producers” are “engaged in tai-chi, yoga, or spot-jogging”. The protagonists of these novels are constantly making big decisions: they must choose between pursuing their society’s newfound material wealth and preserving their sense of integrity. What makes these choices hard, and Adiga’s fiction so rich, is the messiness of these options: the promise of prosperity in an unequal, cut-throat world is often fleeting, and it requires characters to degrade themselves or others. Meanwhile, the path to righteousness is usually riddled with hypocrisy; it might rip a character away from his comforting community, or keep him bound to an oppressive one. Adiga’s set-ups subtly and consistently pose an overriding question: do human beings actually have the capacity for free will, or, as one character puts it, is man “like a goat tied to a pole”?  

These same concerns permeate Adiga’s latest novel, which demonstrates the author’s characteristic wit but is more understated and wide-ranging. Selection Day is a captivating and sensitive coming-of-age story that tackles various new themes: the confounding nature of sexuality; the darkness that accompanies excellence and achievement. Its characters are all plugged into the world of Mumbai cricket, a colonial relic that is being transformed by private leagues, imported cheerleaders and Michael Jordan-sized sponsorship deals. As in his previous novels Adiga pays close attention to details of place, which lends him a seductive sense of authority. But the setting here is more multifaceted. He continues to capture the pernicious by-products of unchecked development, such as “ravaged” rivers that transport untreated waste from the city to the ocean, but he also takes time to describe affectionately the city’s hovering kites and glistening neem trees. He lingers over the fishing boats entering Mumbai harbour, describing the colour of their lights, the catch they are carrying. He offers wry sociological asides, such as in the following passage about the city’s Gujarati stockbrokers: 

they sat in their air-conditioned offices in Nariman Point and spoke English to their clients, after which they sat in their air-conditioned cars and spoke Hindi to their drivers, after which they sat at their air-conditioned dinner tables and spoke Gujarati to their mothers. 


We are at some point in the late noughties (the year is never mentioned) and the novel’s fourteen year-old protagonist Manju Kumar lives in a box-sized flat in the slum of Dahisar with his father and brother. He is a talented athlete with a “twenty-five year old man’s forearms grafted onto the body of a four-foot ten-inch child”. But Manju prefers to spend his time pondering scientific riddles or watching his favourite television programme, CSI. He is wistful and angry and has lost his mother:  though the facts of her disappearance remain unclear, she possibly ran away out of fear of Mohan, Manju’s frustrated and abusive father, a chutney salesman who grew up in a village and once laboured on a coffee plantation. Mohan has a burning desire for Manju to become the second best cricketer in Mumbai, and for Manju’s older brother, Radha, to become the best. To ensure the boys’  success, he makes pilgrimages to a temple, rolling around on its floor until his body is bruised. He subjects his sons to various forms of control and humiliation. He inspects their genitals. He prevents  them from shaving, for “the cut of a razor makes hormones run faster in [the] blood”. Manju seeks to punish those who make fun of his strange father, but he also fears him. Fortunately, he has a mentor and friend in Radha, the “chief consoler and psychiatrist to the world’s second-best, but most intelligent, and most complex, young cricketer”.  

Things change for the family when a wayward businessman, Anand Mehta, decides to invest in Manju and Radha’s careers, providing the Kumars with a stipend and loaning them cash so that they can move into a middle-class air-conditioned flat. As the years pass, Manju’s perfect technique and smouldering rage make him one of the best cricketers in Mumbai. To Radha’s chagrin, Manju breaks citywide records and is given a scholarship to travel to England – an opportunity previously “destined” for his brother. Meanwhile, Manju grows close to a rival cricketer, a slightly older and much wealthier gay teenager named Javed Ansari, who writes poetry, reads George Orwell and listens to Tupac Shakur. Javed believes that cricket is all “corporate propuhgunduh”, and he repeatedly advises Manju not to be a “slave”, encouraging him to disobey Mohan and pursue his real passion, science. Manju is at first suspicious of Javed’s compassion but soon begins to confide in him about his mother. Javed becomes both a father figure and an object of desire, and Manju contemplates having sex with him. Eventually the boy must decide whether to give up cricket and his family in order to move in with Javed; he must also contend with the ever-present homophobia sanctioned by the British-founded legal system and promulgated in the media, political speeches and through the menacing words of his jealous brother. It seems free markets and foreign investment have done little to temper prejudice; they may even have helped to reinforce it.  

The hateful ideology of Hindu extremism is similarly ubiquitous in Selection Day. To get to cricket practice, Manju must walk by the home of the notorious right-wing Hindu leader Bal Thackeray (1926–2012), the “Permanent Boss of the city” who advocates violence against Muslims.  A statue of Veer Savarkar, a forefather of Hindu extremism, looms over a cricket pitch. Tommy Sir, one of Manju’s coaches, espouses the type of Islamophobic rhetoric common to many middle- and upper-class Hindus. He lives a secular life, painting watercolour renditions of Van Goghs in his spare time, and yet he harbours the irrational fear that India’s Muslim population might impose Sharia law on the whole population. Fortunately, Adiga provides vital alternatives to such simplistic perspectives, taking great pains to create characters who explode religious stereotypes. Javed is a Muslim, but he is also a regular teenager, with artistic aspirations and angst. Javed’s father, a Muslim businessman who imports scientific textbooks, has one of the most open-minded attitudes towards homosexuality in the novel. 


It is not just the Muslim characters who are sophisticated. Take the angel investor Anand Mehta, who is similar to a character named Ashok in The White Tiger. Both Anand and Ashok have recently returned from America and both contemplate pseudo-liberal notions of egalitarianism. Both are aggressors who use their privilege to dominate others. But whereas The White Tiger’s Ashok is deliberately buffoonish and villainous, Anand is intelligent and vulnerable, and he experiences his own form of marginalization within Mumbai society. Adiga’s characters, like his settings, are getting more complex with each book, and this complexity makes his indictment of the contemporary world all the more urgent and convincing.  


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