Book review - Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

There are currently more than 7,000 men, women and children held in immigrant detention centres across Australia. Human rights groups regularly condemn the country for its indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers, who can be held in limbo for years. Villawood, located in Sydney and operated by outsourcer Serco, is a particularly notorious detention facility. There have been reports of prison-like conditions and it is beset by protests, alleged violence and attempted suicides — in early 2019 there were two deaths just six weeks apart.

Australia’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers is a theme taken up by Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger) in his searing new novel about a young Sri Lankan Tamil denied asylum, trying to get by as an “illegal” in Sydney. Like George Orwell’s Room 101, the threat of imprisonment in Villawood haunts Danny, real name Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, throughout his four years working as a housecleaner. Amnesty gives us one day in Danny’s life, but this is no ordinary day. He discovers that a former client has been murdered and thinks he knows who is responsible. Adiga deftly builds tension with a central conflict. By reporting his suspicions, Danny risks being deported: “If I tell the Law what I know . . . I tell the Law what I know about myself.”

Danny inhabits a deeply hierarchal world. He divides the city into two distinct suburbs: “thick bum, where the working classes lived, ate badly and cleaned for themselves; and thin bum, where the fit and young people ate salads and jogged a lot but almost never cleaned their own homes.”

Adiga suggests another level of indignity endured by the undocumented migrants who, like Danny, are forced to exist on the margins. Danny lives in a storeroom above a grocery shop. He is exploited by his Greek landlord, who takes a cut of everything he earns as a cleaner and odd-job man. In a particularly poignant passage, Danny describes having to chop up and dispose of giant cactuses — his hands become a bloody pulp.

In an attempt to blend in with the Australia-born “Icebox Indians” who “always wore black glasses and never seemed to sweat”, Danny has golden highlights in his hair. As he observes, “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.”

We follow Danny on his journey through Sydney as he meditates on his life, the reasons he had to leave Sri Lanka and how he ended up an “illegal”. Danny’s story is a familiar one. After returning from a year’s work in Dubai he is interrogated and tortured by the Sri Lankan state police and spuriously accused of being a member of the LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers). When his interrogator stubs out a cigarette on his arm, Danny realises he has to get out. He discusses options with Cousin Kannan, who decides to risk the danger of a smuggler’s boat to Canada.

Danny opts for the college route, and his father helps him with the cost of a year’s tuition fees and overseas student health cover. Danny’s mistake, it transpires, is to fly into Sydney on a legitimate student visa. When he drops out of college and tries to claim asylum, he is immediately refused with the words: “If you were a victim of torture, it was more logical that you should have caught the boat, as quite a few of your fellow countrymen have done.”

By reporting his suspicions, Danny risks deportation: ‘If I tell the Law what I know …I tell the Law what I know about myself ’

While Adiga assiduously gives us Danny’s back-story, his plot hinges on the murder of Radha Thomas, an Indian woman who lives in the apartment Danny refers to as House Number Five. She is married to Mark, an Australian, but Danny knows that she is having an affair with the intimidating Dr Prakash (former miner, former soldier) and that they are both avid gamblers. Prakash’s “clinic” is their local gambling den. They take Danny under their wing, but it is a pitifully unequal relationship from the start. They never call him by his name, referring to him as Legendary Cleaner, Gandhi or Nelson (as in Mandela). They invite Danny on several trips and he witnesses their abusive, volatile relationship at first hand.

Amnesty takes place over the course of a few hours, from 8:46 in the morning through to the evening, but Adiga’s structured timing does not always work — for instance, it’s hard to believe that in 20 minutes Danny cleans an entire flat (earning A$60) and discovers a murder has been committed.

However, it is a tremendously humane read. Adiga underlines that it is the legitimate fear of being detained for an extended length of time that forces migrants underground. Despite Danny’s impoverished circumstances, he is safe, has managed to build a life and found love with Sonja, his vegan Vietnamese girlfriend, although he is too ashamed to tell her he is undocumented.

Adiga is unwavering in the spotlight he trains on Australia’s hypocrisy — a country that promises a “fair go” for all but treats its asylum seekers with hostility and contempt.

Originally published by the Financial Times