In ‘Amnesty’, an immigrant is put in an impossible position

Kristen Millares Young

THE WASHINGTON POST – When complex human stories are carved into the style of a thriller, the probability of reductionism increases. With his fifth book, Amnesty, Aravind Adiga examined systemic and individual impunity through one bad day of a working man’s life. But did Adiga create characters only to exploit their paradigms?

Highlighting his hair to appear modern, hiding his accent along with his undocumented status, the Tamil protagonist Dhananjaya Rajaratnam lives as Danny.

Caught in a double bind familiar to many migrants, Danny entered Australia on a student visa to attend a for-profit academic institution that he was soon convinced would convey neither a good education nor access to real jobs. Afraid to be indebted without recourse, he dropped out and plowed his achievement mentality into becoming a ‘Legendary Cleaner’.

He cannot shake what he left behind. Tortured in Sri Lanka, Danny’s trauma was made manifest by a raised scar on his forearm, which he touched repeatedly, plagued by the memory of a police officer’s burning cigarette. To risk applying for Australian asylum could invite deportation to that same fate.

Danny operated in a state of constant surveillance that went unrecognised by people desensitised to the comforts of their citizenship. “Mimicking a man with an Australian spine, wearing shorts in public, enjoying the low-class thrill of looking like a child again,” Danny did his best to pass as someone he was not. But USD47.50 highlights could not obscure his cracked teeth.

Danny wanted to relax enough to enjoy the forced assimilation over which he pretended to have agency. For that, Adiga needed a foil – a legal, leftist, vegan, Vietnamese Australian girlfriend named Sonja, her “eyes eager for otherness”, whose affections were too precarious for Danny to disclose either his undocumented status or his proclivity for eating meat.

Adiga shone when documenting the ways in which immigrants were marginalised by those who claim to care about them, for “Danny had always thought of himself as a man who had come to Sydney to wear suits”. Flabbergasted that he lived in a grocery storeroom that she refused to visit, Sonja could not understand why he gave up the beauty of his native Batticaloa. In response to her questions, Danny knew he would “have to start lying”. His actual thoughts were too caustic to earn the pity she would offer in lieu of acceptance, and to tell his true story could expose him to betrayal.

With crisp dialogue, constant movement and occasional flashbacks, Adiga showed Danny’s choice to close himself off as reasonable. Facing desperate consequences occasioned by one misplaced secret, Danny could not afford to trust.

The scarcity of kindness in Amnesty was the author’s lasting accusation. Adiga faced backlash for his depiction of the “darkness” of Indian society in his brilliant debut novel The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize by featuring an abused servant turned cutthroat entrepreneur. In a poignant series of sarcastic letters addressed to a Chinese premier by Adiga’s garrulous, dangerous and hilarious narrator, the author skewered the unprosecuted corruption of the upper classes.

Those same tropes governed the Australian present and Sri Lankan past of Amnesty, in which Danny was befriended by clients Radha Thomas and Prakash Wadhwa, a compulsive Indian couple who in their adopted country acquired nothing like the societal recognition and emotional comfort they craved and so they clung to their affair and other addictions.

During bouts on the town, Danny became more, and also less, than their housekeeper – an unseen seer of society and its unhappiness, beginning with his own, which was temporarily displaced, then enhanced, by their drama. Radha was beyond Danny’s romantic reach, which imbued their relationship with pathos and degradation.

Radha was cheating on her Australian husband. Prakash was a partner whose regard came cheap, although he looked expensive in his signature red leather jacket. Reliant on Radha for his rental apartment and living expenses, Prakash nevertheless hated her authority and resented her marital obligations. And then she turned up dead.

Time-stamped like a Michael Crichton novel, Amnesty unspooled over 11 tense hours during which Danny debated telling the police what he knew.

Allegory was a soulful premise and a possible remedy for how global economic discourse retreated into statistics. In Danny, Adiga created an archetype of the human condition – a manual labourer trapped by his basic needs, mired in lost hope for the flourishing of a botched migration. But no matter how taut the plot, Adiga’s spare secondary characters failed to break free of two dimensions. Should Danny phone it in? Or had Adiga already done so?

While Amnesty succeeded in wrenching attention toward systemic injustice, its stylised, iterative interactions are too cursory to move past being concept demonstrations. Adiga provided just enough character development to support the assertion that yes, people were so like that, and here was an antagonist to prove it.

Like many crime dramas that create an audience for serious ideas through the lens of entertainment, Amnesty lured the reader into considering how any one person might navigate such unjust governance. To engage with the courts is to put yourself at their unproven mercy, a hard fact that may need fiction to gain traction in the public imagination. It did not spoil the denouement to which Amnesty incessantly marched to posit that Danny’s position was impossible. He could either ruin his own life or he could ruin his idea of himself, which may be worse.

What did he envision? What kind of man did he want to be? And what kind of society do we want to create? Denied the meager gratifications of a costly assimilation and haunted by never becoming more than myriad countries wanted for him, Danny made a hard choice, knowing he could pay in blood.