Review: The Story Of My Assassins, by Tarun J. Tejpal

“It cannot be too widely known,” LJK Setright used to say, “that Setright does not indulge in correspondence.” While I am a long-time reader and admirer of Mr. Setright, I cannot share his placid commitment to a diode-esque communication with my own commenters. If you ask me a question, I will most likely answer. If you’re looking for a quarrel, then I’ll probably be your huckleberry. And if you recommend a book for me to read, I will make an effort to check it out.

Such was the case when CJinSD recommended Tarun Tejpal’s The Story Of My Assassins. Mr. Tejpal is a journalist and muckraker (in the complimentary sense of the word) who has been named to “India’s 50 Most Powerful People” thanks to his founding of Tehelka, a website that specializes in undercover “sting” investigations.

The Story Of My Assassins follows a sort of reverse-Mary Sue version of Tejpal. Instead of being famously successful and widely known, the narrator/protagonist is the junior partner in a failing investigative magazine. On an otherwise unremarkable weekend morning, he finds out that he has been the target of an elaborate plot to murder him — one that was foiled by the police before the assassins could reach his home.


This is not a plot-driven novel in the conventional sense; the assassination attempt is merely a jumping-off point for an investigation into the lives of the narrator’s five would-be killers. They range from an insubstantial Chinese pickpocket who grew up in a train station to a warrior ascetic possessed of fantastic strength and bloodthirsty determination. Only after each of the assassins has been completely dissected and examined does the narrator find out how and why they planned to kill him.

Readers who have no experience with Indian culture or language will be pleased by Mr. Tejpal’s gradual introduction of everything from Hindi street slang to the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. (An oddly effective summary of the Gita is found on a Flecktones album, if you’re so inclined.) This felicitous and skillful introduction is doubly welcome because many readers will no doubt find Mr. Tejpal’s India to be a vertigo-inducing nightmare of meaningless violence and stomach-wrenching sadism.

If there is a recurring theme to The Story Of My Assassins, it is sexual abuse and subjugation, combined with the utter futility of challenging India’s established power structure. One of the would-be killers is raped every day for years as a child until he uses a switchblade to extract some revenge on his abusers. But this feel-good moment quickly turns into a nightmare when the politically powerful relatives of the young men who raped him extract their own revenge by burning down his family’s house, cutting off the finger of his grandmother’s gardener, and leaving the severed finger inside the grandmother’s vagina after raping her into unconsciousness.

Another one of the killers joins a gang as a teenager, but when a gang member assaults an upper-caste boy from a boarding school, the police capture the entire gang and force a variety of items, including an axe handle, into their anuses for no other reason than the sadistic joy of tormenting people without the power to fight back.

The sexuality of this book would be immediately familiar to a reader who grew up in the Roman or Greek empires. Nobody in this book is “straight” or “gay”; they are merely the fuckers or the ones who are fucked. The teenaged leader of the train station gang, who enforces compliance with a sharpened screwdriver and is feared by all, chooses the most delicious homeless eight-year-olds to service his prick: “He was a young man who had dined well for years, and now had the approach of an epicure… pleasure lay not in consuming him abruptly, but in planting the seeds of arousal in him and seeing what grew from it.” Yet this lord and ruler of all he surveys eventually falls afoul of more powerful criminals and is chopped into nearly unrecognizable pieces.

Mr. Tejpal repeatedly subjects us to elaborate descriptions of penises: long, short, insatiable, impotent, deliberately crippled into uselessness by savage torture. Yet there is virtually no eroticism in the book, and when it appears it is always connected to the narrator’s mistress, Sara. In a novel mostly filled with savagery and misery, Sara is comic relief, beauty, and safety all in one. Her work for a human-rights organization has made her suspicious of this unconsummated assassination and the putative guilt of the five suspects; it is her decision to investigate the situation independently that provides most of the novel’s narrative drive.

“She had two beautiful halves that belonged to different bodies,” the narrator tells us, “Above her waist… she was narrow and fragile. Below she was full, with the hips and thighs of a woman made for bearing children. Not for the photograph, as she was above, but for real-life excitements.” Sara reads poetry, inveighs against the fascist oppression of the Indian police, and commands the rapt attention of every man she meets. Educated in the “occidental” style, Sara is the very image of the sex-positive, social-justice-obsessed feminist-heroine archetype. Yet by the end of the book she is revealed to be as naive and clueless as the narrator or the assassins themselves. India proves to be more subtle, and more casually vicious, than she can accept or understand it to be.

As the novel struggles toward the end, Mr. Tejpal works his thread into finer and finer detail, abandoning the brutal narratives for a final vignette that takes place in an airport hospitality lounge and focuses on a conversation between the narrator and one of India’s truly clued-in power players. In this conclusion, all threads are neatly tied and all answers are provided. But this ending, which would satisfy in a Western book, does not quite suffice for an Eastern one. So we are given one last page for the narrator to face his karma, one final opportunity for him to either accept his given role as an Indian or to rebel against it. There is a speech by the narrator’s spiritual leader, Guruji, but his flowery language from the Gita is both summed up and shown up by a cab driver:

My jacket was soaked by the time I corralled a cab. It was an old Ambassador with one door tied shut with a string. The old sardaji said, ‘But three work.’

But three work. This, we are meant to understand, is India. A country where the game is fixed from the start to favor the powerful and where the only freedom is found in accepting what you cannot change. And Mr. Tejpal’s book is a powerful guide to that country in all its squalid splendor. Ironically, reading it is enough to reaffirm my faith in American exceptionalism. There should be one country in the world where the meek are not ground into dust by the strong. If not here, then where?

41 Replies to “Review: The Story Of My Assassins, by Tarun J. Tejpal”

  1. bbakkerr

    Wow, this is quite a review. It makes the book (and all it encompases) sound both attractive and repulsive, and for better or worse, very, very human. But to read it? It could mess up a naive midwesterner …

    Reply
  2. Dirty Dingus McGee

    I’ll have to give this one a try.

    If you have never read Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, real name Harry Hart Frank, it’s a very thought provoking look at a post nuclear war USA.

    Reply
  3. Scottm

    I spent 18 months working in India and that was enough for a lifetime. The people I met and worked with were friendly and intelligent and I became good friends with several of them. However the squalor and rigid caste system are straight out of the dark ages. It is the definition of a low-trust society. Money and position rule and if you have neither you are but a leaf in the wind at the mercy of those who have them. Get pulled over? 500 rupies and you are on your way. Need to get something through customs? Find the supervisor’s price and you move to the front of the line. Have an infant and can’t afford to take off work? No problem just strap him to your back and go work your construction job. I’ve seen babies who can’t be more than 6 months old with their mother working on a scaffold or digging a ditch. I asked one of my Indian American coworkers to join my project and he told me there is a reason he left and he’s never going back. Be thankful for everything you have. It’s 2017 where I am in South Korea so happy new year to everyone.

    Reply
  4. Jeff Zekas

    Excellent review, Jack.

    In some ways, America is moving towards India: rigid caste system (The One Percent), justice based on money, and rampant corruption (The Clinton Foundation). The left doesn’t realize that this is why Trump won: liberals have failed to address the very real concerns of the working class. Some of us remember all the good jobs in steel and textiles and heavy industry. We remember being able to buy a house on one income. We know what it is like to work for the same company for 30 years and have a stable retirement. We know the feeling that America at one time was the best in everything.

    This is spoken by a long time union member, former socialist, Peace and Freedom Party activist, Independent, sometimes conservative and sometimes Green Party, member of the now fading baby boomers.

    Reply
  5. -Nate-Nate

    A good review flashed out by insightful commentary .
    .
    I too have Friends and acquaintances who migrated to America from India, some to prosper and enjoy life, others to abuse our system to get rich easily, mistreat their arraigned marriage wives and Children created by same .
    .
    -Nate

    Reply
      • VoGo

        Ronnie is incapable of commenting without polluting the world with his alt right comments. Of course, ‘polluting’ in the context of RG means advancing the general vibe of hatred for anyone not white, not Republican, not Judeo-Christian, not a man and not closed minded.

        Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          “the general vibe of hatred for anyone not white, not Republican, not Judeo-Christian, not a man and not closed minded.”

          I’m going to take some general exception to this. Of the seven people who have written a feature article for RG, two are black. Another one is gay. I’m not a registered Republican and I haven’t voted for a Republican candidate since 2012. We don’t have a lot of female commenters on this site but that’s to be expected; it’s mostly about topics that interest men.

          As far as the other stuff goes, just speaking personally… I hired the industry’s first transgender writer. I sponsored a biracial BMX racer back when most people in the Midwest had never even seen a black guy on a 20″ bike. I drove for the fucking Pakistan Express race team and I’ve competed both here and in Asia with the star and crescent of Islam on my car or driving suit. I’ve worked closely with people of color my entire life. For years I lived with various Bolivians, Columbians, and Venezuelans who traveled to the United States to train and race with me. I was the Diversity Coordinator of my freshman dorm, for fuck’s sake. I live in a racially diverse neighborhood — yes, there are black people in my little 88-house ‘hood, both African-Americans and actual Africans.

          I don’t bother to blather about DIVERSITY and QUEERNESS and WOMYNHOOD on this site because this isn’t ThoughtCatalog. I don’t feel the need to virtue-signal. And there’s nothing I like less in the world than having some gated-community lily-white silver-spoon cocksucker lecture me on diversity knowing full well that every time he sees a black person he rolls up his window and turns down the stereo like Michael Bolton in Office Space.

          When you come to RG, you are coming to a site owned and operated by two Midwestern German-American Christians who lean right of center. That’s the viewpoint that we bring to everything and it’s as valid as the viewpoint held by a black guy in New York or some gay dude in the Castro. I don’t ask those people to pretend to be me and I don’t pretend to be them.

          Thus endeth the rant. Thanks, as always, for contributing and reading.

          Reply
          • -Nate-Nate

            Jack ;

            Please elucidate how you _really_ feel .

            -Nate
            (who remembers when “SJW” wasn’t an epithet)

          • VoGo

            Jack,
            I’m not saying you’re a racist or a bigot and I do get that you truly are trying to understand alternative perspectives. I am saying that you attract a crowd – here and on TTAC – that is intolerant of different viewpoints, politics and lifestyles. I can’t make a point without one of your acolytes saying I must be triggered or need a safe space.

            You are a highly skilled writer with a consistent, authentic narrative voice who uses nuance well. Maybe use your skills to educate your audience rather than pander?

          • Kevin Jaeger

            I wouldn’t try to make any sense of it. He’s just a self-appointed thought policeman making his rounds.

          • VoGo

            Why would a Jew be alt right? You’d have to ask Ronnie himself, but I see it from time to time. Take a guy who’s been a failure in life – failed businesses, failed marriages, you know the type, they can’t even buy a subcompact without mommy’s checkbook. These self-hating types, they are easily attracted to fascist ideologies that distract them from reality and from facing the truth of why their lives are so miserable. A pity really.

        • Ronnie Schreiber

          “Polluting the world”?

          That sounds dangerously close to regarding some folks as “life unworthy of life”. Gonna call me an untermensch next?

          Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, providing that only takes place after you take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Well, that is, if you can find a rolling donut with very low standards.

          You have a craven desire to be loved by goyim (well, at least those goyim you don’t despise, like the ones who are religious Christians, you’re just fine with Muslims who want to kill Jews, Christians and athiests). I’m quite sure you find orthodox Jews to be incredibly embarrassing not to mention those crazy Jews who insist on living where Jews established a commonwealth three millenia ago.

          How dare those coarse ostJuden embarrass you by actually acting Jewish?

          In Russia in the 1920s you would have eagerly volunteered for the NKVD’s Yevsektsia persecuting rabbis and other observant Jews. In the 1940s you’d have volunteered for a Judenrat and then been a kapo in the camps.

          Reply
          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            Gentlemen,

            At this point I think all the arrows have been slung and all viewpoints have been fully expressed. Let’s take a break.

  6. Mike

    Interesting g that Vogo hasn’t replied. Second time he has been slapped down by Jack that I have seen. If he is do offended he should stay on moveon.org.

    Reply
    • VoGo

      I replied. I actually work for a living and don’t have time to come here every 3 seconds to see if there’s a new post.

      “Slapped down” and insulted repeatedly through innuendo are not the same thing.

      Reply
      • Mike

        You come on here and other sites aot for someone busy at work. Also you are very little Eral (no pun intended) with personal insults and innuendo (as you did with Ronnie) so don’t cry foul when done back to you.

        Reply
  7. Mike

    Jack, thanks for recommending this book. I bought it off the Amazon.ca and just started it this evening. You didn’t mention how freaking funny it is. Well, the first twelve pages, anyway. I suspect it might get less funny as it goes along. But holy cow this guy can write.

    Reply

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