Aravind Adiga, The Sultan’s Battery

Adiga’s next book, after his very successful, The white tiger, is a collection of short stories titled Between the assassinations. It has already been published in India, and apparently refers to that period in India between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. An abridged version of one of its stories, The Sultan’s Battery, has been published in various newspapers around the world.

It’s an intriguing little story. It’s about a man, Ratna, who sells, among other things, fake cures for venereal diseases (STDs) because this is the only way he can raise money for dowries for his three daughters. Quack doctors and “sexologists” are apparently prevalent in India, as this article explains. Anyhow, the first suitor to come forward turns out, ironically, to be inflicted with a venereal disease. From this point the story takes a turn that one might not expect from such a set-up.

The irony, fairly quiet though it is, is one of the appealing things about this story: the man who sells fake “cures” ends up caring for someone who is sick of the very thing he sells his “cures” for; the Sultan’s Battery which is a major tourist attraction is a place of fakery and misery; and the Dargah behind which Ratna sells his fake wares is a shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure.

The story is told in third person, and the language is simple and direct, but a careful reading will see an equally careful use of words. Ratna’s sign is written in “golden words” and he arranges his wares with “grave ceremony”. The young men surrounding Ratna are described: “the crowd of young men had now taken on the look of a human Stonehenge; some with their hands folded on a friend’s shoulder, some standing alone; and a few crouched on the ground, like fallen boulders”. Hmm. Stonehenge  conjures something strong and enduring but he quickly undermines that with those final words of the paragraph.

An interesting comment, which draws our attention to the title of the collection, is made late in the story when a passing character says:

Everything’s been falling apart in this country since Mrs Gandhi got shot … Buses are coming late. Trains are coming late. Everything’s falling apart. We’ll have to hand this country back to the British or the Muslims or the Russians or someone, I tell you. We’re not meant to be masters of our own fate.

Adiga here, as in The white tiger, is not impressed by India’s ability to manage itself for the good of its citizens, but is going back the answer? Is this suggestion the ultimate irony?

The story has a somewhat open ending – but, given that it is an abridged version of the one in the book, we’ll have to wait for publication (late June 2009 in Australia, by Penguin) to see whether more information is provided in the book version. From this little taster, I’m willing to read more.