Book Review: The Story Of My Assassins by Tarun J Tejpal

Posted on November 20, 2009 in Society

Abhishek Chatterjee

For inspiration, Tarun Tejpal’s second novel, ‘The Story Of My Assassins’, draws heavily from his own challenging days at Tehelka, the defense-deal sting operation, communalism, the Bhagawad Gita (which seems to be every contemporary Indian writer’s current fetish) and Bollywood and it shapes up to be one heck of a rollicking read.

It is a huge challenge to the reader, as it is continually disheartening,
depressing and gloomy; offering no hope at all in the end, but by golly, a story of so much misery and hopelessness has never been this heartfelt, passionate, engrossing and beautiful.

The nameless protagonist, a journalist, is informed by the police of a foiled plot to assassinate him. Five suspects are rounded up, jailed and put on trial. But the journalist’s firebrand ‘social-reformer’ mistress, Sara, smells a government conspiracy and thinks that the suspects are victims themselves, victims of their own pathetic and degrading circumstances as well as that of the corrupt collusion between selfish politicos in power and the entire state machinery, which is twisted and turned for profit by the self-conserving political class. She decides, with the help of a couple of smitten lawyers, to investigate the matter herself. The action then serializes to the back stories of the five suspected assassins before closing in on the truth about the attempted assassination.

As we are taken through the lives of the five assassins, we meet our own countrymen that we never meet in real life. People who, like many millions of Indians, are born on the fringes, and silently die there. People who suffer the worst forms of degradation, poverty and state apathy. People who therefore either lose the will to live altogether or murder, kill, rape and steal for the most flimsy and insubstantial causes. People who have absolutely no hope, from the moment they are born to the moment they succumb to their wretched circumstances. The five assassins, Chaku, Kabir M, Chini, Kaliya and Hathoda Tyagi are all such people, each a victim of the everyday violence and horror of an India that exists outside the realm of urban sensibilities. Unlike Balram Halwai, these are no ‘White Tigers’, and in that respect ‘The Story Of My Assassins’ is easily the more definitive ‘other’ India book, even more so than either Mr. Adiga’s, Mr. Chandra’s or Mr.Swaroop’s. At one point, Chaku’s father hopes that his son’s birth will somehow uplift him from penury, but as Tejpal poignantly points out, “in the end it is always just one more mouth to feed”. While structured as a mystery thriller, this is in fact a simultaneously disturbing and moving social and human drama that deserves serious attention.

But this is not where the list of qualities ends. Tejpal’s characterizations deserve special mention. Each character in the novel is well etched, distinct, real and memorable. The feisty mistress Sara, the self preserving elitist and Kafka-quoting Jai (the protagonists’ business partner), the well meaning policeman, Hathi Ram, the protagonist’s spiritual counselor, ‘Guruji’ (whose oblique wisdom is as the same time confusing and enlightening), the typically wily, but drunk on ‘money-sex-power’ Delhi power-broker, Kapoor Sahib and indeed the selfish, almost nihilistic protagonist himself are all spot on. They all have their indigenous and quirky wisdoms. Sample this — when the protagonist asks the journeyman police officer Hathi Ram if he would like another cup of tea, Hathi Ram responds thus —“One cup is friendship. Two is intimacy. And that is always reductive.

As friends we talk about big things, philosophical things and national affairs. But in intimacy we will talk about wives and bosses and the price of milk and vegetables, and we will become small men obsessed with small things. So no more tea, my friend, no more.” It is also to Tejpal’s credit that he manages to infuse a sardonic sense of humor into the proceedings, a necessary trait while dealing with a stark subject such as this. Almost every page offers something genuinely funny, which makes the reader smile and wince at the same time. While taking us through the early years of Kaliya and Chini, boys who grow up on the platforms of Delhi, Tejpal, incredibly, even manages to make death a subject of much mirth.

What Maximum City was to Mumbai, ‘The Story of My Assassins’ is to Delhi specifically and the Hindi heartland in general. Delhi is cut open and all its veins and sinews are opened for viewing, resplendent in all its colors, particularly red, the color of power and blood, and exposed as a city where the nexus of politics, religion, goons, money, industry and power is at its strongest. Tejpal’s observant eye encompasses both grandeur and destitution alike and brings the city, its people and their idiosyncrasies alive amongst the pages like never before in recent memory.

The only trivial objection one can possibly have with the author is that he takes on a multitude of issues, trying to deal with practically everything that is wrong with the country. But the final product still manages to avoid being flippant or preachy.

This wonderfully textured tour-de-force is easily worthy of your bookshelf and it is bound to get better with every subsequent read. India has many realities and here is a chance to look at the more ‘real’ ones, the ones which don’t get played out in ‘chutterputter’ English, the ones which get no media air time, the ones which make our country what it is.

Abhishek Chatterjee also blogs at A Secret History
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