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by Tarun J. Tejpal


Nailed To The Edges

A journey to the depths of a planned crime is also an empathetic descent into the bowels of the underclass

Reviewd by Manjushree Thapa (Outlook India)

At one point in Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins, a stranger tells the novel’s protagonist about Donullia, a dacoit linked to Uttar Pradesh’s “Chanakya of politics”, a certain (very recognisable) Bajpaisahib. The protagonist—a fictionalised body-double for Tejpal—is one of India’s leading news editors. Yet he knows little about the dacoit. Realising this, the stranger notes wryly, “The problem is, Donullia did not live his life in English. That is why you don’t know about him.” He would have heard of him if the dacoit had spoken “chutterputter English,” he says. Few of India’s English novelists are as grounded in the Indian reality as Tejpal; and few English novels from here are as finely textured and true-to-life as Assassins. The charismatic editor of Tehelka, Tejpal knows India’s elite and underclass alike. In Assassins he weaves their stories together seamlessly. The novel begins as the world-weary protagonist learns that the police have foiled an assassination attempt against him.


Tejpal seeks to capture Delhi’s innards; evokes its power machinery skilfully. The novel’s quest for morality is very satisfying.

Nobody knows who was behind the attempt, and some—like his fiery mistress—doubt it even happened.

Struggling to finance the magazine he edits, the protagonist is suffering from compassion fatigue. In the police station to file a report, he casts a jaded eye on those around him: “I didn’t want to know about the villages they came from, the schools they went to, their family problems, their struggling parents, their working woes, their caste, their religion, their dialect, their opinions on politics, nationhood, the economy, Gandhi, Nehru, corruption, crime, cricket, Hindu, Muslim. Nothing.”

Yet this is what Tejpal persuades him—and the reader—to do once the would-be assassins are arrested. The protagonist is seduced into empathy for his assassins by his mistress, who, in between having steamy sex with him, sets out to prove them innocent. The reader is seduced by the novel’s narrative voice, a smart, acerbic voice for a tough, edgy story.

As the plot is revealed, so is Delhi in its splendour and squalour. Delhi is the ultimate subject of Assassins.

Tejpal is a marvellously observant writer. He brilliantly evokes the city’s power machinery with a few strokes, as when the narrator sees the high court as a sea of penguins (lawyers in black coats), or enters a fort of a police station, or examines his unlikely assassins: “They looked like each other. Everymen. The roads, bazaars, offices of India were full of men like them.”

The novel is also full of laugh-out-loud lines that bring Delhi to life. In Tejpal’s Delhi, journalists ask editors for “red lines”; publishers cower from manuscripts for fear of libel; the television blares inanities 24/7; gurus proffer dubious wisdom; the wealthy ensconce themselves in gaudy farmhouses and the “vaguely famous” gather, self-importantly, at the India International Centre….

Tejpal spares no one among the elite. Yet his focus is unblinkingly on the underclass, the poor from the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who seem to have been put on this earth to be used and then discarded.

The assassins consist of a village weakling who learned early to wield a knife in self-defence, a gentle Muslim boy who learns to find sanctuary in the prison house, a boy from a family of snake-charmers, an abandoned hill boy and a hothead who falls in with the wrong crowd.

Clearly, none of them could have masterminded the attempt. Who, then, is behind the plot? Is there a plot to begin with? Or is it all an elaborate hoax? Even the policeman charged with protecting the protagonist admits: “It’s like a suspense thriller. All very complex. Till the last scene we won’t know who the real killer is.” The truth, revealed at the end, makes for a thoroughly satisfying read.

In his first novel, The Alchemy of Desire, Tejpal established his joyously earthy sensibility and natural flair for story-telling. He infuses Assassins with an added quest, one for morality in today’s divided India. This quest significantly increases the urgency, and importance, of his fiction. Assassins does not just entertain. It also enlightens. This is set to be the definitive Great Delhi Novel of our times.

(Manjushree Thapa is a Nepali writer. Her books include The Tutor of History, Forget Kathmandu and Tilled Earth)

Courtesy: Outlook India


Tarun J Tejpal is a journalist and publisher. In a 26-year career, he has been an editor with the India Today and The Indian Express groups, and the managing editor of Outlook, one of India’s premier newsmagazines. He has also written for several international publications, including The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times and Prospect.
In March 2000, he left Outlook to start—a news-and-views magazine on the net that has broken ground with its sting investigations. In 2001, Asiaweek listed Tejpal as one of Asia’s 50 most powerful communicators, and Businessweek declared him among 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia.

Tehelka has garnered worldwide acclaim for its journalism, and is seen as one of the seminal websites of world media. After three years of gross victimisation by the Indian establishment, in January 2004 Tehelka relaunched itself as a national weekly paper, uniquely funded by the advance subscriptions of its supporters. The Tehelka weekly paper which is a well-rounded paper with public interest as its core is being read by more than a hundred thouisand people every week. Its readership is growing in leaps and bounds.
Tarun’s debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was published by Picador Books in England in 2005. The Sunday Times hailed it as “an  impressive and memorable debut”; Le Figaro as a “masterpiece”; and Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul declared,
“At last – a new and brilliantly original novel from India.”
In France the book won the Prix Millepages. Several language rights have been sold around the world, including Italian, Greek, Spanish, Russian and Polish.
In December 2006, The Guardian listed Tarun J Tejpal among the 20 Indians who constitute India’s New Elite.

(From the website)

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