In his second novel, The Story of My Assassins , Tarun J. Tejpal takes an unsparing view of India and its teeming underclass.
In the novel, after a journalist’s exposé causes chaos within the Indian government, there’s an assassination attempt on his life. Was the novel based on events in your life?
Very loosely. The news magazine I run, Tehelka, did a huge investigative exposé on arms procurement, which led to the resignations of the defense minister of India, and the president of the ruling party. Several months later, the police in Delhi where I live arrested five men who they claimed had taken out a contract to kill me. But only one or two scenes in the entire book are directly drawn from my life. One is the courtroom sequence when the narrator first goes into court and is confronted with the assassins. I had that similar experience—I was asked if I recognized any of them and of course I didn’t know.
Your novel focuses on the lives of these assassins. Were those completely fictionalized?
That was the meat of the book, to imagine these lives and give them complex, grounded existences. Because of the work that Tehelka does, a huge tidal wave of material washes through my office on an annual basis. Very few novelists that work in the English language have the kind of insight and access that I have due to the journalistic work that I do in the corridors of power, in the barracks of policemen, and in the stories of the oppressed.
As the narrator’s story is revealed, we learn a lot about the diversity of India. Where there any surprises for you as you worked on it?
I often say writers have an inadequate sense of the extent to which material subliminally orders itself. For example, it wasn’t until the book was done that I realized the five assassins ended up being exemplars of five different fault lines of India—religion.
The assassins end up being sympathetic characters.
This for me is the biggest triumph—that I could get readers to very strongly empathize with and be on the side of the assassins. Too often you live in a country like India where there’s staggering poverty alongside staggering wealth. People of my class stop seeing the underclass. They work for us, we see them on the roadside, but we stop seeing them in a real way. I wanted them to be given back their dignity.
What would you like readers to take away from your novel?
First of all, the idea of the incredible complexity of India. Anything you say about India, the opposite is also true. There’s been a kind of shallow narrative about India that’s always been abroad—it’s an exotic land, full of snake charmers and elephants. And then in the last 20 years, it’s been this kind of booming land, economically powerful, and the truth is, it’s never been either this or that. I wanted the narrative of India to be true to what we are, to who we are, a very complex country, both sublime and tragic.