06.10.09

My Wild Trip Home

An essay from the author of Between the Assassinations on how he traveled from Brooklyn back to his hometown of Mangalore, and discovered an India he never knew existed.

You can’t go home again—unless you’ve never really been there.

In 2003, my employer in New York, Time Inc., sent me back to India to be a reporter for Time magazine. One of the reasons I wanted to come back, after more than a decade in England and America, was to finish the literary project I’d begun years ago as a student at Oxford, where I had read large parts of Balzac’s novel series The Human Comedy, a complete portrait of the France of his time. I wanted, in a modest way, to do the same for the one place on earth I thought I knew inside-out: Mangalore, my hometown in the south of India. In my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I sketched out a plan for a bonsai version of The Human Comedy—a series of interconnected stories about each of the typical residents of Mangalore—businessman, teacher, student, farmer, politician, and so on. The book would be true to the external appearance of Mangalore’s buildings and people, but would also capture the inner drives—jealousy, lust, compassion—that shaped the town.

Read an Excerpt from Between the Assassinations

Late in 2003, after settling down in New Delhi—where my job with Time required me to live— I took a flight down south to Mangalore. I had not been back since 1990, the year of my mother’s unexpected death; so not only was this is my first visit in over a decade, it was also my first trip to my hometown without my mother around. I was here, finally, as an adult—free to wander, to speak to anyone, to look at the town with new eyes. And what I discovered, in the course of a weeklong trip, was that I didn’t know my hometown at all.

I had grown up in a privileged, upper-caste Hindu community; and because my father worked for a Catholic hospital, we lived in a prosperous Christian neighborhood. The stories I had planned to write about Mangalore’s residents all featured middle-class Hindus and middle-class Christians. But walking about the streets of Mangalore as an adult, I kept noticing people who had played no role in my childhood, but who made up the majority of the town: the lower castes and the poor. There were also large numbers of Muslims, about whom I had known virtually nothing while growing up. This seemed like a new challenge: to learn about the invisible majority of Mangalore, and write about their struggles and joys. To write a book that would be truer to my hometown than my childhood was. Too much of Indian writing in English, it seemed to me, consisted of middle-class people writing about other middle-class people—and a small slice of life being passed off as an “authentic” portrait of the country. What was missing was a book that would show a cross-section of life in an Indian town, capturing both its ethnic richness and its raw wounds.

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Between the Assassinations. By Aravand Adiga. 352 pages. Free Press. $24. ()

It took me a few more trips to Mangalore to make me realize the enormity of the task at hand: The average small Indian town, it turned out, had more ethnic diversity than all of Western Europe put together. India’s huge population, rich past, and history of tolerance combine to create an almost surreal degree of social complexity. To give one example: I speak of Mangalore’s “Muslims”—but they are subdivided into Sunnis and Shias, and also smaller denominations like Ismailis. Some Muslims speak Urdu; others speak Byari, a local dialect; some others speak Tamil—and each linguistic group tends to stick to its own. A caste hierarchy complicated things further; those with preferred last names like “Syed” and “Khan” stand higher up in the hierarchy. Mangalore’s Christians, in turn, are divided into Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Syrian Christians. And all this is before we have to deal with the Hindus, with their thousand divisions of caste, class, language, and regional origin. I spent as much time as I could learning about Mangalore—interviewing local politicians and businessmen and consulting parliamentary records to study its political history, voting patterns, and ethnic and caste composition.

In the meantime, something unexpected happened that almost tore my book apart. I was traveling all over India for my work as a journalist, and meeting people from other towns who demanded entrance into my Mangalore novel. In the state of Bihar, I spent a day with a radical communist, a man who had renounced a life of privilege to take up arms against the Indian state. While pouring tea with trembling hands, he spoke to me of the times he had been arrested, and of the times he had been beaten in jails. In the town of Panipat, in the north of India, I befriended a wandering sexologist—a quack—and watched him as he took out bottles of white pills and offered them as a cure for syphilis to crowds of young men; he refused to stop following me until I promised to put him in a story. Above all, so many men and women living in old Delhi—the congested, historic part of India’s capital, where I spent my Sundays, walking about the mosques and temples—caught my eye and my ear and forced me to write about them. Soon it was clear to me that the place I was writing about was not Mangalore, but something else—a small town that had all of India in it. I had to invent a name for this town: and I called it Kittur.

Another thing that became clear to me was that this book would be set in between two of the key events in modern Indian history—the assassinations of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1984, and her son Rajiv, who succeeded her as prime minister, in 1991. In 2006, when I finished most of the first draft of Between the Assassinations in the New Delhi suburb of Nizamuddin, I was also working, intermittently, on the first draft of The White Tiger. That novel was to be set in the India around me—what was called the “new India.” This India had been created in 1991, when India’s socialist economy, where every aspect of life was controlled by the government, was suddenly opened up to the world. The White Tiger was set in this new India: a country shaped by globalization, rapid economic growth, easy wealth, and deepening inequality. But I wanted to write a book about the last years of the “old” India—the years from 1984 to 1991.

Indira Gandhi was an all-powerful mother figure who had ruled the country for nearly two decades, and her sudden death in 1984, though traumatic for every Indian, also opened up the possibility that the India she had created—bureaucratic, corrupt, economically stagnant—could be replaced by something better. The man who succeeded her as prime minister—her son, the young, charismatic Rajiv—made all of India glow with optimism. Yet, Rajiv’s regime succumbed to the same bureaucracy and corruption; and a sense of crisis was deepening in India by the time Rajiv, too, was assassinated in 1991. The world of Between the Assassinations is coming to an end, and its inhabitants sense that—without knowing what will come next. Rajiv’s death—and a financial meltdown in 1991—brought in a new government that finally opened up the Indian economy to the world. Foreign companies came flooding in to India; outsourcing became a hot new industry; new fortunes were created. The new India—the place we in the middle class had been waiting for since 1984—had finally arrived.

But it would be wrong to see Between the Assassinations as just a forerunner or prelude to The White Tiger, I think. Balram Halwai, the hero of The White Tiger, breaks out of his cage at the end of the novel—but the characters in Between the Assassinations, for the most part, strain against the limits of their known world without breaking out. In their India—the India of the socialist years—they are constrained in a way Balram Halwai is not in his world; yet they learn perseverance, compassion, and resignation in ways that Halwai perhaps does not. The book’s vision is an alternative—perhaps even a challenge—to that of The White Tiger.

Between the Assassinations is in some ways a more personal book than its predecessor. Every story in here has grown out of something I‘ve seen, or done, or seen done. As a result, Kittur—this dreamt-up town of the Sultan’s Battery, the Cool-Water Well Junction, and the Havelock Henry Hospital—seems as real to me as the city of Mumbai that I live in. For about a year now I have been at work at a new novel set in Kittur; when it is done, it should substantially expand the story of this town, which has become a new home for me—one which compensates, in part, for the many homes I have lost.

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Aravind Adiga is the bestselling author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.