Partway through VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979), Salim, a Muslim of Indian origin living in Africa, explains his frustrations and ambitions with disarming bluntness: “I’m tired of being on the losing side. I don’t want to pass. I know exactly who I am and where I stand in the world. But now I want to win and win and win.” The passage, and Salim’s movement throughout the novel, turns on one word: “But.” He knows things are set up for him to lose, but he wants to win. These sentences kept coming to mind while reading Aravind Adiga’s sharp new novel, Amnesty.
Its protagonist, Danny, is a fitting successor to Salim. He is living and working illegally in Australia. Over the course of a very long and difficult day, “a day full of excruciating adult decisions”, Danny experiences variations of Salim’s feelings and notions, only in bleaker terms: no matter how much he wants to, Danny furiously knows he can’t win. Either he does the right thing, at great cost to his prospects in Australia, or he allows wrongdoing to go unchecked, at great cost to his prospects as a humane, thinking person.
Adiga has been probing the outer limits of dignity and agency for angry young brown men since his first novel The White Tiger. It won the 2008 Man Booker Prize and concerned the cocksure worldview and murderous ascent of a poor Indian, as detailed in the letters he writes to the Premier of China.
Whether it’s the schoolmaster who outrages his neighbours by holding out against a Mumbai real estate magnate’s attempt to purchase an apartment building in Last Man in Tower, or young motherless brothers who rise from the slums to become national celebrities amid the irrational, corrupt, exploitative exuberance of Indian cricket culture in Selection Day, Adiga’s work is always in service of exposing the excoriating effects of inequality. The injustices he describes occur in spaces and places that the global Anglophone elite would prefer to imagine differently when they pick up a new work of South Asian literary fiction.
Indeed, Adiga signals as much, at the start of Amnesty: “All of the coastline of Sri Lanka is indented, mysterious, and beautiful – but no place is more mysterious than Batticaloa. The city is famous for its lagoon, where extraordinary things can happen. The fish here can sing… At midnight, the water’s skin breaks, and the kadal kanni, mermaids, emerge out of the lagoon dripping with moonlight.” A little brown boy, Danny, sits on a rooftop, looking out at the Indian Ocean, longing “to talk to a mermaid”. If you’re sighing – or groaning – at the start of this novel, you’ll feel differently by page four.
Danny is now in his early twenties and living in Sydney. He’s in the midst of eating a cheese sandwich. A white Australian woman interrupts to make fun of the care he put into preparing his meagre meal. “Fuck her, I like eating like this,” he thinks. This is South Asian fiction by Aravind Adiga, not some hyphenated hothouse tiffin tragedy from a glassy-eyed creative writing graduate.
Danny keeps eating, before he sets off for another day as an illegal migrant trying to get by. He’s in this situation because his first approach at migration failed: after earlier efforts at overseas working in Dubai ended with his being brutally mistaken for a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorist by Sri Lankan authorities, Danny draws on his father’s savings to pursue studies at an obscure Australian school. It turns out to be a high-functioning scam.
His subsequent asylum request is rejected – after all, he arrived legally on a student visa, never mind the cigarette burn on his arm – and so he goes into a form of high-functioning hiding. For four years and counting, Danny has lived in a grocery storeroom and moved about the city with a vacuum cleaner strapped to his back, cleaning houses for cash, generally in- visible to white Australians while hyper-visible to fellow brown people.
Detailing this asymmetry, Adiga reveals how Danny’s very person invites and repels solidarities that fracture along lines of race, nation, class, self-image and self-preservation.
The novel’s main action transpires over the course of a single day, early in which Danny discovers that a woman he knows strangely well has been murdered. Radha is a wealthy Sydney resident whose flat Danny has been cleaning for two years, a job that involves also conspiring to keep secret her affair with a brusque and brash doctor-and-gambler named Prakash. Danny needs the work to sustain the $47.50 haircuts and blonde streaks he goes in for to seem other than an illegal house-cleaner – and also to impress his girlfriend, a lefty vegan nurse of Vietnamese background who doesn’t know about his status.
Beyond the money, he is ambivalently drawn into Radha and Prakash’s way of life, fascinated, envious, and outraged by their easy movements around the city as legal brown people. As an illegal brown person, he can’t act, of course, on any of that: instead, he plays the meek jokester, accepting of playful insults when he’s not dutifully waiting outside for the couple to finish their lovemaking so that he can clean and rearrange the sodden bedroom.
When he learns of Radha’s death, Danny is convinced that Prakash is the culprit. Prakash seems equally convinced Danny would suspect him, and is keen to keep him quiet. The two engage in a day-long set of conversations, by phone and in person, that are mutually threatening and evasive and turn on the question of whether Danny will inform the authorities about Prakash and thereby draw attention to his own status.
If you grant Adiga the otherwise questionable compressions of time and space that sustain the novel’s day-long dilemma, and also the characters’ shared willingness to talk and meet, repeatedly, the result is a tense study of what it takes and means to risk yourself for the greater good in a time and world short on empathy.
In typical Adiga form, he provides the soberest analysis of the situation through the words of an unrepentant murderer, when Prakash predicts Danny’s future if he calls the police to report him: “You’ll be a hero for a minute on Twitter, and then everyone’s watching football while you’re deported for the rest of your life.” Danny doesn’t disagree; he knows he can’t win, but he tries.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto
Picador, 352pp, £16.99