‘Amnesty’ sets up a moral dilemma for an immigrant living in the shadows

Aravind Adiga’s novel follows a man living illegally in Australia as he weighs an impossible decision: Solve a murder, or stay in the country?

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“Amnesty” by Aravind Adiga, Scribner, 256 pp.

Does a person without legal protections still bear a responsibility to the societal order? This moral dilemma is the crux of Aravind Adiga’s timely novel “Amnesty,” in which he uses the familiar plot structure of the murder mystery to explore universal and seemingly perennial issues like class dynamics, social contracts, and self-identity. 

Danny, a young house cleaner living and working in Sydney, learns that one of his clients has been murdered. Police discover the woman’s body in a creek. Nearby, they find a man’s jacket and presume it belongs to the killer. As he follows the news reports, Danny recognizes the jacket and realizes he knows who owns it. He could likely help the police solve the crime. 

But Danny also knows that if he comes forward with the information, he will also destroy his own life – one that has been difficult for him to build, because he’s an unauthorized immigrant. 

His tale unfolds in flashbacks over the course of one day. For starters, Danny’s full name is Dhananjaya Rajaratnam. Four years ago, he fled to Australia from Sri Lanka. A member of the minority Tamil people, Danny had been tortured by the Sri Lankan police, who wrongly believed he was a gang member. He vowed never to return to his home country, and escaped using a student visa, with which he attended an overpriced sham of a university. When the visa expired, he applied for refugee status, but the Australian government denied his application. Having exhausted his legal options, Danny went underground.

He does his best to assimilate. His keen observation of societal stratification leads him to suppress his accent and dye golden highlights into his hair. He begins work as a house cleaner for a service that pays him in cash. Each step of Danny’s journey is part of his efforts to achieve anonymity – the ticket that he hopes will allow him to live a semblance of a normal life.

His work provides him with a lens into his clients’ lives. From this vantage point, Danny observes who really holds the power in society. He witnesses the illogic of immigrants of the same nationality separating themselves from one another based on immigration status. 

As it turns out, Danny was close to the client who was murdered; she was an Indian-Australian woman who gave Danny the rare gift of friendship. She never divulged his status, and in return, Danny kept a secret from her husband: She was hiding a paramour – Dr. Prakash – in her second home. It is Prakash’s jacket that Danny recognizes. 

And it is Danny’s internal struggle – whether to tell, or to protect himself – that becomes the real tension in the plot. Where does his loyalty now lie? What is his highest sense of right? Despite the legal compromises he has made in his effort to build a new life, Danny prides himself on the quality of his character. Honesty and integrity matter to him. The resolution of this conflict is succinct but oddly satisfying.

With a near-effortless writing style, Adiga conveys the daily life of an immigrant in a manner that builds empathy for Danny’s real-life counterparts – the hidden community members present almost everywhere in the world. And Danny is an enormously likable character. When he and the alleged killer spar in cat-and-mouse cellphone conversations, the reader experiences his anxiety. While Danny knows the killer’s identity, Prakash knows Danny’s immigration status, and the equivalent weight of the two pieces of information effectively communicate the high stakes involved. “Amnesty” stands as a timeless reminder that what is legal is not the same as what is ethical.

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