Half way through The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal, I felt like giving up on the book. This was not because the writing was poor or the plot was boring; it was simply that I felt as if my head was being constantly battered by a sledgehammer, so intense and depressing were the author’s descriptions of what the blurb on the dust jacket calls the “dark underside” and “unbearable realities” of modern India.
Where is the hope, I wondered, as I read the gruesome tales of the lives of the gang of brutish individuals from the poverty-stricken underclass who had been brought together to form a hit squad to kill the book’s main protagonist (and narrator), a cynical and self-centered journalist who had become a minor celebrity (and therefore a target) after exposing a case of government corruption.
Sadly, as I persevered with the book, it became very clear that there never had been any hope for the gang members at all. Right from the very day they were born into a life of poverty, ignorance, and violence, there was no way they could escape from it no matter how hard they tried to. This may not excuse their behavior, but it does at least make them sympathetic.
As for the main protagonist and narrator, I felt that he should still have hope after surviving the potential attempt on his life and the collapse of his magazine, but he retreats into the study of Sanskrit and settles for making his living by giving banal media sound bites on the “subject du jour”. Understandable, perhaps, but hardly inspiring.
At its heart, this is a deeply pessimistic – almost nihilistic – book, but it also provides a harshly honest and brutally eloquent indictment of the almost impossible struggle that many people in India face to better their lives. For that reason alone, I am glad that I stuck with the book through to the end – even if my head is still ringing from the blows inflicted by the sledgehammer inside it.