“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?