The JRB presents an excerpt from Aravind Adiga’s new novel Amnesty, a riveting, suspenseful and exuberant novel about a young illegal immigrant who must decide whether to report crucial information about a murder, and thereby risk deportation.
Pan Macmillan, 2020
About the book
Danny—formerly Dhananjaya Rajaratnam—is an illegal immigrant in Sydney, Australia, denied refugee status after he fled from Sri Lanka. Working as a cleaner, living out of a grocery storeroom, for three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself. And now, with his beloved vegan girlfriend, Sonja, with his hidden accent and highlights in his hair, he is as close as he has ever come to living a normal life.
But then one morning, Danny learns a female client of his has been murdered. Suddenly Danny is confronted with a choice: Come forward with his knowledge about the crime and risk being deported? Or say nothing, and let justice go undone?
Over the course of this day, evaluating the weight of his past, his dreams for the future, and the unpredictable, often absurd reality of living invisibly and undocumented, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.
Read the excerpt:
In the city of Sydney, the shopper is a child in a fairy tale: sweets and colours surround her in a magic castle, and the Wicked Witch squints from government messages.
Behind his mountain of $2.50 candies and $3.50 pink greeting cards stood a brown man, his head blocking a SMOKING KILLS sign, as he guarded his most valuable cargo: scratch-off lottery tickets and cigarettes, both of which were encased in protective glass.
The man behind the counter was burly, bearded, probably Bangladeshi, and, Danny thought, extremely legal.
You can tell from the way he watches you.
The brown man in a white man’s city who is watching other brown men. Danny had studied all the ways this was done, from the amiable glances of the Western Suburbs Indians, smug in their jobs and Toyota Camrys; the easily acquisitive Sab Theek Hai, Bhai? (or, more recently, the mysteriously Jamaican Hey, maaan) of the fresh new students in Haymarket, the ones who are running madly across roads; the ostentatiously indifferent I’ve got nothing in common with you, mate glances of the Australian-born children of doctors in Mosman or Castle Hill (Icebox Indians, Danny called them, because they always wore black glasses and never seemed to sweat, even in summer); and worst of all, those families visiting from Chennai or Malaysia, clicking photos of the beach, or loudly double-checking on the phone with relatives back home exactly which cholesterol medication or marsupial souvenir was needed from Australia. Man who has run from his family, you’re not natural, brown people told Danny, and he, with his innate instinct for double or nothing, had streaked his hair in a barbershop. Standing in front of a mirror, he had imitated the gaze of an Australian-born man: My father is a surgeon at Westmead Hospital. I don’t have time for immigrants like you. He had fixed his posture too. On the streets of Sydney, Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans still looked at Danny, but now they looked with envy.
Easiest thing in the world, becoming invisible to white people, who don’t see you anyway; but the hardest thing is becoming invisible to brown people, who will see you no matter what. Since they must see me, Danny thought, let me be seen this way—not as a scared illegal with furtive eyes but as a native son of Sydney, a man with those golden highlights, with that erect back, that insolent indifference in every cell of his body. Let them observe that Danny is extremely icebox.
Not here, though. Because no one is icebox around Central Station.
Here in these streets still resounding with the bodies of trains passing over old iron tracks, Chalmers and Devonshire, Danny had seen only the raw gaze, the Central Station stare, eyes that convey a desperate truth from one immigrant to the other: every brown man in Sydney, one day or another, has to beg.
Today is my day to beg, Danny pleaded with his eyes to the Bangladeshi, for I am in such trouble today, my legal brother.
Legal? Much more than legal—this young Bangladeshi was a brick wall in which each block said: Ideal Bloody Immigrant.
Returning Danny’s gaze, he folded his arms across his chest, the image of respectability, diligence, and responsibility to family, everything the whites wanted in someone they let into their country: he did not have to talk about the weather, or about cricket or football, to curry favour with his clients; secretly, they envied his faith, his purpose, his strong alien core.
To win him over, step by step, Danny touched the top of a stack of Daily Telegraph newspapers, curved his spine, hunched, and smiled.
Meaning: Can I look at the paper without buying? Cricket? Only for cricket?
All this without words. South Asian to South Asian, ignoring the highlights.
Without a smile, the Bangladeshi relented, adding: ‘Don’t make dirty.’
Danny wandered past more greeting cards, small useful metal things hung in plastic, and a freezer just for Magnum ice cream, before he reached for The Daily Telegraph.
Danny turned the pages. Don’t make it dirty. Legal idiot.
Nothing in the paper. So it must have been late at night. Still gazing at the paper, he played the knife murderer and made thrusts into the air. You’d have to be bloody strong to do it. Even if it was a big knife. She was a tough woman. She would have fought.
From where he stood, he now overheard the Bangladeshi store manager whispering into the phone: ‘… real malik is Louiebhai, he is the real …’ and Danny was charmed momentarily by that name, Louiebhai, before he thought, Unless she knew the murderer and wasn’t expecting to be stabbed, so she didn’t, until he was summoned to the present by the snapping of fingers:
Danny looked up. The Bangladeshi was pointing straight at him. Time’s up.
Folding the newspaper, Danny replaced it with a big smile. Thank you, brother.
‘I have a cactus,’ he said. From his bag, he had removed the thing wrapped in thick plastic.
The Bangladeshi looked at it almost curiously. Danny knew why his eyes were sparkling like that.
Instead of the bonsai version with branches, Danny had bought the other, less endearing, domelike kind of cactus.
‘For my girlfriend. Sonja. Nurse. She is a nurse. At St Vincent’s today. Very good nurse. She’ll like the cactus, I reckon. Yes, I reckon.’
The domed cactus was sixty cents cheaper than the branched kind, and didn’t the Bangladeshi know it? Look at him grinning.
‘Do you have Knitting magazine?’ Danny raised his voice. ‘She likes stitching. Aussie girls don’t stitch, but she does. Very good stitcher.’
‘Over there.’ The store manager knew Danny by now. ‘Don’t read it for free.’ By the time Danny had moved over to the rack with the women’s and craft magazines, the TV newsreader had begun talking about sports.
As Danny browsed through the only knitting magazine on the shelf, another customer came in and actually bought something. ‘Do you want the receipt?’ the Bangladeshi man asked this customer, and Danny smiled: He still pronounces it with the p. But the Bangladeshi man had nothing to hide: he was a legal, and whether or not he pronounced his p, Danny’s time inside this store was now over.
- Aravind Adiga was born in India in 1974 and attended Columbia and Oxford universities. He is the author of the novels Amnesty; Selection Day, now a series on Netflix; The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize; and the story collection Between the Assassinations. He lives in Mumbai, India.