Invisible Man

Aravind Adiga imagines Australia refracted through an immigrant’s eyes

Originally published in India Today.

We use the word apocalypse, and these days frequently, to describe the end of the world. But its literal meaning, from ancient Greek, is “uncovering”. No one can say for sure whether Covid-19 is our omega, but there’s no doubt we’re living through a time of revelations — of the unseen becoming visible.

Since India went into lockdown, we’ve seen indelible images of migrant labourers on a trudging exodus towards distant homes. We’ve seen them beaten by lathis and sprayed with industrial chemicals, as if they were the unfeeling parts of some machine. We privileged classes, some dabbling in domestic labour for the first time, watch as the inequality of our society is laid bare, thrown into sharp relief at interstate borders. This inequality also sends people across international borders: on foot, in boats, on planes. The transport varies; the migrant may have more or less to his name. But while the work he does is invaluable, the world does not want to see him.

“Does it work like this?” wonders Danny, the Sri Lankan protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s fourth novel. “You’re not wanted to begin with in your own home. Then illegal immigrants come to your country, take what little you have, and force you to go to Australia and become illegal there.” Amnesty explores what it means to live in society’s peripheral vision, while also constantly dodging the state’s surveilling eye.

Adiga, who has spent many years in Australia, says that in the late 1980s, “all you had to do was stand near Sydney’s Central train station, and sooner or later, a desi would come to you, begging for help with his visa problem.” He was always aware “there was another kind of Indian in Sydney — the man or woman on the verge of losing legal status and slipping into the shadows.”

Danny was inspired by a story Adiga heard among the Eastern Tamils of Batticaloa (“a minority within a minority”) when he was a reporter for Time magazine. A victim of state torture had fled to Australia and “sent just one postcard of the Sydney Opera House back home, in which he had written the words: ‘Never coming back.’ Danny is that young man.”

Adiga imagines “a non-Indian, but Hindu, observer moving through a western city… interpreting his path via Saiva images of fire and self-punishment”. His previous novels are set in India, and he found it liberating to “describe the world through a Hindu gaze when the setting is outside. In India, everything is now political, and I worry that my freedom to write about my own cultural heritage is limited, lest it be misinterpreted.”

Over the course of one life-changing day, Danny, who works as a cleaner, navigates the “thick bum” (working class) and “thin bum” (young professional) neighbourhoods of Sydney. He describes “the eyeshock” of recognition when encountering other South Asians, and his invisibility to most Australians. In constant danger of being “dobbed in” and deported, Danny’s troubles are intensified by a possible murderer, “two shades darker than the whites and two shades lighter than the blacks… Everything in the room was evolving toward him.” The knowledge each man has about the other turns the screw of Amnesty’s compressed timeline, even as life in the Harbour City carries on around them. As Danny’s phone pings with ominous messages from “the Doctor”, the city watches him through screens, cameras and the eyes of strangers.

Adiga’s background in journalism, his powers of social observation and the thriller-inspired plot make clear the precarity of Danny’s situation. This is set off by two profligate characters, “a parody, or inversion”, of the gambling-addicted protagonists of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. “Gambling is a celebration of Australian individualism, of the right to live as one chooses,” Adiga says, while, for Danny, life is one bad bet after another. The odds are always stacked against him.

Danny longs to live under the protection of “This object of wonder, this incorruptible thing, the blondest animal in Australia: their Rule of Law”, even while his continued presence in the country violates it. Besides mining this irony, Adiga exposes “how Australia, which has been a relatively egalitarian society for much of its history, is changing into another sort of nation, more racially diverse, certainly, but whose diversity is also masking the entrenchment of an unfair class system”.

“I’ve always felt that the Indian middle class was profoundly more liberal than its Australian equivalent,” Adiga had said in a pre-pandemic conversation, while pointing out that our rule of law is weaker. Yet now, as people die due to draconian and bungled orders, or struggle to procure basic supplies without relevant documents, some Indians still can’t see that their privilege is a lucky accident in a rigged system.

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