Tarun J. Tejpal’s “The Story of My Assassins” begins, “The morning I heard I’d been shot I was sitting in my office. …”
Even as we are pulled in by the undeniable catchiness of this opening, even as we enjoy the first few pages of the novel, we weigh the 500-plus pages ahead of us and worry. The reason we worry is that we recognize the narrator: a cynical and acerbic observer of modern society — in this case, modern Indian society — who we’ll accompany on a quest to learn the story of his assassins, enjoying as we go his cynical riffs on all that he encounters.
As Raymond Chandler and others have shown us, this sort of thing can be a great deal of fun: Who doesn’t enjoy spending a couple of hundred pages in the company of a bitter, alienated — and witty — fellow? The problem is, all that bitter alienated wit can, when stretched over three-, four-, or five-hundred pages, get old.
We breathe a sigh of relief, therefore, when we see that Tejpal alternates the first-person-alienated sections of his novel with something entirely different: novella-length stories of each of the five “assassins.”
The skillful juxtaposition of the blighted lives of the accused killers with that of the much more comfortable narrator makes this a true state-of-India novel; Tejpal’s sharp eye, humor, and skill with words make it a success.
Our narrator is revealed to us through the observations and verbal energy that Tejpal provides for him: The factotum at his office looks “like he had been masturbating himself to death for the last fifty years,” and his American-educated mistress “bought this whole occidental bullshit about fixing the world, about the grand march of logic and reason, all the way presumably — taking delicate sips of her Starbucks — to Auschwitz and Birkenau.”
The hobby farm owned by a young tycoon features “water-spurting Scandinavian marble mermaids with large Indian breasts, a topiary of dinosaurs, a swimming pool shaped like a flounced skirt, piped Clayderman tinkles at every corner of the garden, a Yeats pond with the fifty-nine swans of ‘Coole,’ a dining room in a mock stable with two handsome horses tethered in a corner for atmosphere,” and so, tastelessly, on.
A novel that pokes fun at the comfortably well off is, however, at best, a Tom Wolfe-ish sort of satire. What makes “Assassins” more than that are the stories of the five accused men, all of whom live in an India that the Clayderman-loving plutocrats (not to mention those of us comfortably ensconced in the first world) ignore.
Tejpal’s depictions of the lives of the “assassins” is clear-eyed and compassionate: the grinding poverty and casual violence, for example, of the villages from which most of them come — children beaten as a matter of course, women raped in retaliation for a perceived wrong done by their family, the humiliation and worse of Muslims in areas that are, after partition, Hindu — the list could go on.
Tejpal’s achievement is that he paints the downtrodden “assassins” lives vividly enough that they are more than cardboard cutouts of misery.
He makes us see that these people — the homeless child in Delhi’s main railway station, the brutalized Muslim, the torture victim — are, in the fullness of their lives, existences that contain joy as well as suffering, not other, but us.
“The Story of My Assassins,” as ethical as it is entertaining, reminds us how humane, how necessary, realist fiction can be.