Set against the backdrop of the chaotic fallout of the demonetisation of high-currency notes in November 2016, Assassin – translated from the Malayalam by J Devika – is the investigation of an assassination attempt on the protagonist and narrator, Satyapriya. Forty-four years old, single, and certain of her absolute ordinariness, Satya is flummoxed by the attack, and wonders if it was a case of mistaken identity. After all, it is only rebels and those who “write false stories against the government” who are murdered and, thus, outside their home, reduced to extreme powerlessness for their opposition to power structures.

Meera has dedicated the book to Gauri Lankesh, forging a bond between all women who speak their truth, and stand up for the truth of others, whether in the public eye or within private spaces. In 1963, the American poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters. The beak that grips her, she becomes.” Women who think, who speak “too much” or “too loudly”, have always, in all cultures, been deemed monstrous. Their very existence is a threat to the fabric of patriarchy. The easiest way to deal with them is to invisibilise or eliminate them.

Neither a public figure nor ostensibly political, Satya is simply a woman who refuses to make herself smaller. In choosing her as the protagonist, Meera clearly sets forth her agenda – that of documenting the times and lives of the women of her generation as well as her own “experiment with the Indian political truth.” To describe the book as political is a bit of a tautology. Assassin, like the rest of KR Meera’s oeuvre, is obviously political. It is also a mirror of our social reality, a critique of patriarchy, and a complex study of crime.

Demonitisation as a leitmotif

The author pulls no punches as she details the horrors of demonetisation – the long queues, the interminable hours spent waiting in line, the everyday struggles of being unable to make essential payments or access one’s own money, and the platitudes that were piled on thickly by eternally optimistic, self-styled “patriots”. One of these indoctrinated young men, Satya’s neighbour Paramarth, reminds Satya of how the prime minister’s mother was standing in a queue and the rest of the hoi polloi, therefore, need not make such a fuss.

As data accumulated, the inconveniences proved to have been entirely avoidable since no real benefits accrued from this ill-conceived measure. No sums of Rs 15 lakh were deposited in the personal accounts of tax-paying citizens. No black money was eliminated. Those sitting on magic mountains of privilege were able to convert black money to white with a simple declaration.

Want and damage, as always, were the lot of those without. Satya adopts demonetisation as a leitmotif in her narrative, using it as her primary point of reference. “The new notes are politics”, she says, “the old ones, history.” Banned currency becomes Satya’s obverse for memories that cannot be banned and love that cannot be withdrawn. The multiple attempts on her life are also affected by demonetisation, especially in the one instance when her assassin cannot be paid because cash has disappeared from the market. Meera’s critical lens is insistently subversive and, characteristically, darkly humorous.

Satya’s investigation of crime turns into an investigation of human relationships. The pursuit of her attacker leads Satya to each of her past lovers and a reconstruction of her romantic and familial history. Men have largely disappointed her. An abusive, controlling father; a college senior who pursued her relentlessly, only to violate her body and her trust; a young anarchist who ended up monetising their relationship and her body; a rebel whose Maoist leanings ruptured any possibility of a future; a mentor who wanted her devotion; a “Babaji” who wanted her complete submission – all are sub-plots in Satya’s life story.

Embedded in each of these is the discourse of patriarchal power. Men lay down the rules. Women are controlled by them. Satya regains control over her own narrative by unravelling her past and accepting difficult truths. Her story also foregrounds a range of abusive relationships that women around her are forced to endure. Satya’s forays into the past excavate the trauma of women who are devalued in intimate spaces.

Both sexual and domestic abuse, Satya avers again and again, are only forms of control and hinge entirely on the psychoanalytical tropes of women’s bodies either glorified for fetishistic pleasure or punished in an act of establishing dominance. The only redemption in this arc of gender trouble comes from, unsurprisingly, the relationships between women – mothers, daughters, sisters – either biological or found.

Satya’s mother, Vasantham, remains undefeated by the misogyny of her world. Her lack of complaint is not a submissive acceptance of her sorry lot but, instead, a gritty determination to not let a hostile world get the better of her. Satya’s Amma is not a tropey “resilient”. She is, instead, a prototype of women who put their lives together, brick by realistic brick, without making themselves beholden to anyone who might need to grant them access passes to an easy existence.

Fact and fiction

An exposé of social and cultural prejudice is often at the heart of KR Meera’s work. Qabar, translated into English in 2021, dealt with religious bigotry and communalism. Assassin does the same for caste. Satya’s “high-caste” father marries a “lower-caste” woman, the daughter of a rich, self-made man, and immediately propels himself into a world of wealth and opportunities. His caste privilege opens doors that remain closed to his wife and their mixed-caste children. Caste also becomes a trigger for various kinds of violence in the text, as much as it does in the real world. Satya’s accounts of caste discrimination always carry within them her resentment as well as her subversion.

Cleverly, Meera also weaves into the narrative a critique of frenzied hyper-nationalism that is based on unthinking hero-worship and promotes communal, caste and other divides. Misinformation and its all-pervasive tentacles are given a generous dose of Meera’s delicious dark humour when the reader is told about how demonetisation apologists often also came up with advisories about microchips in currency notes and extraordinary amounts of oxygen being released by tulsi plants at the time of watering and Aadhaar cards being issued for cows and buffaloes.

Instead of castigating the media as is de rigueur, Meera suggests a subtly destabilising solution – that of using the great reach of the media by telling them a story they want to hear. The novel performs this very function. It uses fiction, tells a story, and in doing so, reveals the flaws in our social, cultural, and political structures.

Formal experimentation is a classic KR Meera stylistic device. In Assassin, she does what a lot of contemporary writers have made possible in the recent past – an exploration of history, contemporary and past – through the telling of stories. Much like Hillary Chute’s formulation of the memoir/autography turn in graphic narratives where “historical accuracy is not the opposite of creative invention”, contemporary fiction like Assassin continues to bridge the gap between fact and fiction. It plots the story against documented data, using news reports and court verdicts, referencing events fresh in the readers’ memory.

Satya’s investigation becomes a pursuit of truth, a dispassionate search that must free itself from personal likes and dislikes, achieved only with what she describes as a Gandhian renunciation of one’s desires. The text continually asks questions of the reader: “Have you ever faced an attempt on your life?”; “Are you asking what happened that made me want to describe all this so closely?”; “Have you ever tried sculpting?”; “Have you ever been on an empty road in the blazing sun, alone?”

The “you” in each of these questions is the reader, not an imagined entity but a flesh and blood person, able to identify with Satya’s life, her struggles, and her emotions. With delightful ease, the writer draws the reader into her narrative, making them a part of this complex world where violence and avarice are a given and therefore, social responsibility rests with all. Just like in the real world, there are no perfect or permanent solutions. Just like in the real world, unsettling questions have no easy answers.

Assassin, KR Meera, translated from the Malayalam by J Devika, HarperCollins India.