However, in that broadcast, Churchill added a caveat: "but perhaps there is a key". The key he is referring to is the means to unlocking an understanding of Russia. For anyone looking to comprehend the puzzle that is India, one key I'd recommend is a book: The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal. Aravind Adiga may have snagged the Booker and Vikas Swarup the Oscar but to Tejpal's book goes the prize for providing one excoriating, unflinching opener into the conundrum that is India.
I reviewed the book for SCMP on its debut and recommend it strongly. A note of caution though: it's not for the faint-hearted.
The Story of My Assassins
by Tarun J Tejpal
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Tarun J Tejpal, author of The Story of My Assassins, could arguably be one of India’s most notorious journalists. As editor of Tehelka (which means ‘sensational’ in Hindi), a magazine founded on the premise of investigative journalism, he conducted a sting operation in 2001 exposing corruption in India’s defense acquisitions. This earned him the government’s hostility and the public’s attention. Voted one of India’s 50 most powerful people by Business Week, praised by V S Naipaul as “brilliantly original”, viewed as a crusader by the average Indian, the author of the bestselling The Alchemy of Desire is definitely multi-faceted.
The Story of My Assassins leverages off Tejpal’s own experience when, in the aftermath of the sting operation, the journalist was provided with security cover because of a perceived threat to his life. In the book too the protagonist – editor of a struggling magazine, and a lothario with a skewed moral compass – is alerted to a potential assassination attempt when the police descend on his house and cordon it off. Apparently, the police have foiled an attempt to kill the journalist; beyond that there is no information forthcoming. In a limbo of intrigue, impasse, imperil, the protagonist – his name is never revealed – wonders whether the entire scheme is an elaborate set-up to stymie his journalistic forays, the government he is bent on exposing now coddling him against some presumed assassins. When he sights the five hit men – variously named Chaaku, Kabir, Kaliya, Chini, and Hathoda Tyagi – for the first time in court he is further mystified as to the linkages between him and his nondescript would-be-assassins.
Meanwhile, his paramour, a social worker, is convinced that the five boys are pawns in an ingenious scam and determines to unravel their testimonies. Thereon the narrative interweaves between the account of the intended victim and the individual stories of the assassins, taking the reader into the belly of a marginalized India still rife with feudal fiefdoms, caste conflicts, police brutality, guns and gore. If Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger supposedly captured the other India, Tejpal’s book starkly documents the utter hopelessness and inherent misery of those perennially circumvented by the coordinates of their birth and social hierarchy in India.
Replete with bawdy humour, sexual innuendos and hearty abuses, the narrative is laugh-out-loud one page and gut-wrenching the next. Tejpal cocks a snook at Indians and their “moral slipperiness” as The Gita is skilfully deployed by several unsavoury characters, each using the sacred text to justify his actions. With consummate skill Tejpal unpicks the brutality and bleakness pervading the world of his five assassins. In the process he makes the reader question who the victim of the story truly is. However, the narrative energy peters off and the book ends on a whimper as the irreverent, self-centered protagonist suffers an abrupt change of heart.
Relentless in its portrayal of the powerless, this book is not for the faint-hearted. However, for those seeking to understand the mosaic of twenty first century India with all its confounding inlays, this is the real deal.