As a devotee of short stories, I am also a devotee of short story collections. There are collections that are hodgepodges of the brilliant works of an individual author, and there are collections also by the one writer that link the stories so you get to the end with the same sigh of satisfaction you get from a fat novel. The trick is in how to structure the stories so they work together.
‘Between the Assassinations’ (2008) does it simply and cleverly. Obviously – the title tells us so – Aravind Adiga’s stories are linked by time, between the 1984 and 1991 assassinations of the prime ministers of India, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. But that does not explain the structure.
The stories are all set in the town of Kittur on the south-western coast of India and they are linked by torn extracts from a travel guide, somewhat like the Lonely Planets we faithfully carry on our trips abroad. A route is suggested in a hypothetical tour itinerary by the guide (Day Two Lighthouse Hill, Day Three Angel Talkies, Day Six The Sultan’s Battery, and so on). As we follow the suggestions around the town, we meet and hear the stories of the inhabitants of each district.
Hindu, Moslem, Catholic, Communist, men and women, fathers and sons, and pointless daughters, of every caste but mainly the lower classes, these people indeed live on a lonely planet. There is humour, but it is dark, as it was in Adiga’s Man Booker Prize winner, ‘The White Tiger.’
At first I assumed Kittur was as imagined as the lives of its inhabitants. Adiga has the skills to make everything up. I only googled the name after I’d finished reading and was almost disappointed to find it is a real place. The discovery then made me even sadder for all the characters: the school boy burning with resentments, the village boy newly arrived, the beggar, the childless woman, the mosquito man who raises himself to the position of driver and falls again, the school teachers, the dry old Communist (Marxist-Maoist) who feels his heart stir.
Dreams do not come true.
Although the collection ends up as a vivd portrait of an Indian town, this is not a holiday read. I would not recommend you pack ‘Between the Assassinations’ with the Travel Guide as you set off to India. The read is recommended nonetheless.
The image is of a seventeenth century map of London; not directly relevant but a reminder that no matter where we live, we are all humans on a lonely planet in search of someone sensitive to write our stories.