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The good immigrant’s dilemma

Aravind Adiga returns with another underdog protagonist in his new novel set in Sydney

A view of the Sydney Opera House in New South Wales, Australia.
A view of the Sydney Opera House in New South Wales, Australia. (Photo: Getty Images)

Aravind Adiga’s fascination with the underdog continues into his latest novel. Like Balram Halwai in The White Tiger, the novel that won Adiga the Man Booker Prize in 2008, shooting him to global fame, Danny (an anglicized abbreviation of Dhananjaya Rajaratnam), the protagonist of Amnesty, is a hard-nosed survivor, determined to slip the system. He is “an illegal" in Australia, who, having arrived from Sri Lanka on a student visa, dropped out of his “rip-off" college and applied for refugee status, only to be rebuffed by the home office. 

Unlike the boatloads of refugees who wash up on the shores of the continent, Danny had flown into Australia on a valid entry permit, cleared immigration legally, and stepped on Australian soil as a fee-paying student, albeit of a dodgy college. His narrative doesn’t have the same pathos as that of persecuted migrants’. And so, ironically, he is consigned to the ranks of the hapless minorities. At home, as a Tamil, he is reviled by the Sri Lankan state; in his adopted home, Danny is just a poor brown man, who lives in a storeroom above a shop and cleans the homes of the rich to earn a few measly dollars.

As Adiga begins his story, four years have passed in this self-same routine for Danny. He has even found himself a Vietnamese girlfriend called Sonja, who is yet to discover that he is illegal. In this time, Danny has carved a reputation as a “Legendary Cleaner". He’s a favourite among his well-off employers, especially Radha Thomas, an Indian-origin woman who lives in the posh part of Sydney, home to young hipsters (in Danny’s book, the residents fall into two categories—the obese “thick bum" rice-eating migrants, and the skinny latte-sipping vegan “thin bum" Australian millennials).

Danny is privy to Radha’s extramarital affair with fellow Indian, Prakash. Amused by his philosophical wisecracks, the couple adopt him as a cog in the wheel of their flighty romance. The three go on drives and dinners, though it is in the gambling dens of Sydney that Danny witnesses a sea change in his employers. Addicted to gambling and having spurned rehab, Radha and Prakash descend to their nefarious worst as they place bets. Danny, who is also betting on his fate metaphorically, is drawn into their vortex of lust, deception and violence. This uneasy ménage a trois comes to a halt one day, mostly due to Danny’s presence of mind. But its residue comes back to haunt him, months later, again because “Honest Danny" cannot quiet his morally upright mind.

Amnesty: By Aravind Adiga, Pan Macmillan India, 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Amnesty: By Aravind Adiga, Pan Macmillan India, 272 pages, 699.

Set over a day in Danny’s life, with vignettes unfolding for minutes at a time, Amnesty is unevenly paced, in spite of its sharp insights into the inner life of an educated, illegal immigrant. Adiga’s attempts to fill in the reader on Danny’s past—his early life in Sri Lanka, for instance, or his brief stint in Dubai, working in a hotel—don’t sit easily with the urgency with which Danny’s life in Sydney is documented in real time. 

Unlike Balram, Danny isn’t a Machiavellian schemer. He inhabits the loneliness of a migrant with dignity and grace. He spends nights in the musty storeroom, clutching toy pandas he picked up from the street. He puts up with Sonja’s vegan diet, ignoring his omnivorous craving. He doesn’t drink or smoke, nor does he want to gamble, even when Radha and Prakash coax him to. He wavers between his desire to not be noticed and the hope of blending in. One of Danny’s epiphanies as an “illegal" pertains to the far greater difficulty of becoming invisible to brown people than to white Australians. He streaks his hair golden, as any other “legal" young man might, but instead of becoming one of the masses, he stands out even more conspicuously for this reason. 

Adiga’s portrait of his protagonist, drawn with psychological acuity, is the appeal of Amnesty. He gets under Danny’s skin without risking the clichés associated with such a character. Educated and coming from a middle-class background, Danny is not a textbook immigrant fleeing persecution, though he is briefly held and tortured by Sri Lankan police on suspicion of being a militant, a Tamil Tiger. While Adiga makes Danny bear the scars of a past he wants to forget, the scars don’t become the only marker of who he is.

To be able to create a layered character like Danny is a remarkable achievement at any time. But it feels especially poignant in this moment, as the depiction of immigrant life in fiction is making news—the controversy over American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins being a case in point. Had Adiga kept his story on an even keel, without the many digressions he indulges in, Amnesty would have been a more flawless and finished work.

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