Review: Amnesty by Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga is an acknowledged arbiter of the underclass. A kind of Ralph Ellison (along with Manu Joseph, whose novel, Serious Men, is about the detritus-hero playing the game and winning the world) of our times.
Adiga’s first novel, The White Tiger, is about Balram Halwai, who is intelligent, resourceful, and full of dangerous ideas to expropriate from the rich man his world — reeking of pampered pets, corruption, and big cars. In that book, the marginal man is still fighting his war of Independence from the fellow Indian.
In Amnesty, Adiga exports his revolution, as might a literary Che or Trotsky, to other lands. Adiga portrays the life and dreams of the young Sri Lankan Tamil, Danny, who comes on a student visa to Australia, drops out to apply for the status of a refugee and is immediately rejected. Danny crawls into the reptilian cracks and crevices of white Australian society, not without its honorary brown Australians, only to put his head — with “golden highlights in his hair” — out as the “Legendary Cleaner,” the totally “illegal” but equally indispensable wielder of the vacuum cleaner. This is the fourth year of Danny’s dangerous dalliance with Australia. And Amnesty gives a blow-by-blow account of one day in the life of the man in and around Sydney, and whose only objective is to not return to the land of his birth. Sometimes we love a place so much we can’t bear the sight of it.
The day in question happens to be the day of a murder. Of Radha Thomas, an Indian married to Mark, an Australian. Radha is having an affair with the masculine and menacing Dr Prakash. Their trysts often take place when Danny is around to vacuum the love nest and once the antics are done, they take him in their car, romp, and put up the money for him to try his luck at the gambling machines. Gambling is a theme in the novel as it sums up the odds against the survival of der untermensch in the white man’s world.
It strikes Danny that the killer might be Dr Prakash. Doubt leads to an overpowering need for confirmation, and he calls Dr Prakash. The plot moves forward through the conversations they have over their cells through the day.
Danny’s conflict is not only to keep escaping Prakash’s potentially lethal clutches; he also knows that if he tells the truth to the police, he would be certainly blowing his cover and would face deportation. The plot is the process of his final decision.
Adiga does a fine job of making his geography speak. Indeed, the place is the story. It begins at 8.40 am, ends at 7.03 pm. Within those few hours, Danny’s worlds — inner and outer — will undergo a sea change. The novel keeps moving forward even as the clock ticks, as it might in action movies.
Movies! That pot of gold at the end of the imagination’s rainbow. This chimerical objective occasionally tricks the novel into an uncertain area between two stools. As Danny runs for his life, the author of his pains, Adiga, interjects with a rather reflective and lengthy back story. A director may find a way around this by simply cutting it out; but a reader getting into the action may feel justified in wondering, “Why this; why now?” In his introduction to The Good Soldier, Ford Maddox Ford, one of the great modern novelists, says that to pin down a difficult character, “You must first get him with a strong impression, and then work backward and forwards over his past.” Though Danny is no Edward Ashburnham, Adiga creates a strong initial impression of a teenage Danny looking for mermaids in Batticaloa before setting him up as a desperado in Australia, still searching for the happy life, mythical as the beauties rising out of the blue waters.The Maddox formula does not always work here because of the seeming resistance of the genres this novel seeks to cross. Is it literature? Or action?
I found it a little odd that self-incriminating information would be given out by the villain rather early on in the novel. In a conversation with Danny, Dr Prakash, portrayed as an intelligent and calculating man, says: “Mr Cleaner. Nelson the cleaner, it’s great you called today. You know why? I am flying to South Africa in a few hours. By the day’s end.” Surely, this could only fuel Danny’s suspicions? Why would Dr Prakash volunteer damning data? To my mind, only because the author had to cut to the chase.
Amnesty is not Adiga’s finest. He makes writing appear deceptively simple because he is a natural craftsman. And he is, as ever, felicitous with the phrases: “Danny saw a great fig tree sparkle in many places inside its dark canopy of leaves, like a thing that knew its own heart.” Nevertheless, in many places the reading gets tedious, especially the long italicized stories that strive to define the nature of Danny’s immigrant experience. Unlike Balram Halwai, Danny often comes across as too cute. A curly cupid on the run with a vacuum cleaner attached to him is an engaging visual spectacle, but why would a brown ‘illegal’ attract attention with gold-tipped hair? Adiga is probably making his hero likable, giving him that light touch. It didn’t work for me.
Read more: Love and loathing in Bombay
Amnesty is a look-in on the immigrant’s experience in Australia. But at the end of the exercise, it remains a look from outside in. Not inside out. This may be because Danny seems to be always in control and so his trauma may resolve itself independent of the reader’s emotional support. Or perhaps we are done with the age where an urgent novel speaks to the raging heart; the end really of the high novel. Joseph Bottum, in an essay in The Spectator (February 11, 2020), The Way We Read Now, says the novel as a form, after reigning for 300 years or so in the West, is declining. Apart from the changing times, “history appears to have no discernible aim, culture no visible end,” which divests the novel of its purpose. That purpose “is to ‘re-enchant our sense of the world with fictional narratives that put in parallel the sanctifying journey of the soul with the physical and social journey of the body.” Set against that high standard, Amnesty falls short. That is precisely why it will be seen as a winner. Of sorts.
CP Surendran is a poet, novelist and journalist