BETWEEN THE ASSASSINATIONS by Aravind Adiga. Free Press. New York. June 2009. Hardcover. 352 pages. $24.00. aravindadiga.com

I had an epiphany once, in a graduate class on social change. We were discussing Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. The discussion led to caste, individualism, and the social construction of reality when it dawned on me—caste was essentially a social construction; meanings and values attributed to a social reality, which over time become ossified as immutable, timeless truths. For a person born into an “upper caste” family and led to believe that we were somehow intellectually and culturally superior, the epiphany could not have come a moment too soon.

I saw our maid reaching for the chipped tea cup stored under the dingy sink in the kitchen for her share of morning coffee. I heard my mother telling us about the night soil workers (an unfortunate euphemism for scavengers) who would hover around in the backyard of her grandparent’s home, waiting to clear the night soil. Nobody saw them or heard them. All they knew was, the toilets were clean the next day. When sizing a male stranger up, our eyes would almost always be trained to search for the contours of the thin white “sacred” threads decorating the man’s torso. Our primary identity was shaped by our caste affiliations.

One might come close to a similar epiphany on reading Adiga’s second book. In this, a collection of short stories, Adiga explores the centrality of caste, class, and resultant power inequities in small town India. All the stories are set in Kittur, a fictional town in coastal Karnataka equidistant from Goa and Calicut. Kittur represents in many ways a microcosm of India with its upper class/caste Kannadigas, migrant Tamil workers, Muslims, and Hoykas, people of a lower caste.

The title of the book refers to the years that elapse between Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv’s assassinations in 1984 and 1991, respectively. Other than serving as neat book ends, Adiga is perhaps pointing to inertia of change in small town India as the stories themselves neither advance chronologically nor hint at sweeping social change. In any event, this piece of minor intrigue does not take away from the plot and characters.

Adiga’s portraits of ordinary people are etched in sharp relief; a welcome characteristic, since characters like the tea stall helper, the itinerant salesman, the rich wife, and the poor widow are ebbing farther and farther away from public memory as Indian society lurches towards anointing its people with attributes of western modernity—the young, urban, pub-hopping workaholic, or the modern suburban family with villas in American-style gated communities.

The stories are reflective of the power imbalances that insinuate themselves into the caste structure. This imbalance is best represented in a duality; the disempowered and the powerful, the supplicant and the master. The duality serves as a leitmotif in all the stories; the supplicating servant or poorer relative or social inferior pitted against a more powerful, upper caste or socially superior figure in the landlord, the shop owner or the business man.

Indians are fatalistic, one often hears. We accept our destiny. If misfortune strikes us, we are led to believe that the sums of our past deeds or misdeeds in previous lives have now come to haunt us. Adiga does not openly question this, but allows his characters to do so. Fatalism is replaced by the immediacy of reality, a humanity evident in suffering, pain, misery, and hope.

Almost classic in denouement, the stories move from a narrative of hope turning into despair and then despair giving way to indifference and lifelong despondence. Perhaps what makes the stories enjoyable, despite the sense of forlornness, is their familiarity. Indians can relate to the lithe tea shop boy, the middle-aged, affable, childless couple or the salesman beset with worries about marrying his three daughters off. Adiga captures the dilemma of a modernizing society such as India when his character Shankara, a well-off high school student and the product of a liaison between an upper caste doctor and a lower caste hoyka woman wonders, “Is it just a fable? If you said to yourself ‘Caste is a fiction,’ would it vanish like smoke; if you said ‘I am free,’ would you realise you had always been free?”  If we no longer think about it, does it still exist? Adiga argues through his stories that it exists, and is real and immediate for many.

The themes that Adiga writes about is the stuff of dinner table conversations and hence might seem familiar to many Indians. When Indians gather, we lament the state of Indian politics, the level of corruption, the poverty, and the deprivation. As a character recounts in a story titled “The Bunder,” “Black marketing, counterfeiting, and corruption, we are the world champions. If they were included in the Olympic Games, India would always win gold, silver and bronze in those three.”

But more often than not, our conversations stop there. For many middle class Indians, whether living in India or abroad, Indian society now appears post-casteist. We are often led to believe that our opportunities are limitless and unfettered. But Adiga walks us past our conversations. He takes us to the hinterlands, to the villages and towns, caught in between the growth trends pushing upwards and social and economic inequities pulling downwards.

No attempt is made to interweave the stories of the individuals and maybe that was intended to show that even in seemingly networked small towns where everyone knows everyone else, our social interactions are limited by our caste affiliations.

There is one recurring character, though; the adult movies theater. Called Angel Talkies, it is a small town staple, which is used by Adiga quite like the comedian in south Indian movies, who shows up at intervals only to enliven an otherwise morose story line. Only here, Angel Talkies is a rather clever allegory for repression. Angel Talkies symbolizes not only the sexual repression of the catholic school boys of Kittur, but also the bleakness and desolation that is life for most of its denizens.

There is room in his stories for the finer of human sentiments—generosity, empathy and sympathy—embodied at times in a stranger who may play a cameo in a few of the stories. But like the characters, these sentiments too play cameo on a stage where they are eclipsed by despair, deprivation, and sorrow.

At what point should a piece of fiction become social commentary? And at what point is it justified to critique that work for its social commentary? As works of fiction, a book is the product of a writer’s imagination. But as social commentary it invites a longer, wider gaze. It invite critiques. This leads us to the problematic of representation. Who does Adiga represent? As a western educated intellectual, is he the outsider looking in or, as a journalist who has been reporting from India, is he an insider telling the outside world to stop and rethink India?

Girija Sankar is a graduate student in Atlanta