Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2020

Amnesty, by Aravind Adiga

It’s not easy to read this book at a time when we know that there are people in our cities who are excluded from government assistance programs…

Amnesty, Aravind Adiga’s fifth novel, is set in Sydney.  Its central character is a Tamil called Dhananjaya (Danny) Rajaratnam, a would-be Australian citizen from Sri Lanka.  His undocumented status comes to the fore when trying to describe it.  He bears physical proof of torture in Sri Lanka because authorities thought he was a terrorist returning from Dubai, but he is not deemed a refugee because he came to Australia by plane, not in a people-smuggler’s boat.  He came as a student in one of those dubious colleges that have (I hope) since been shut down because their marketing model had nothing to do with education. It was to provide a route for would-be migrants to Australia to come here ostensibly as students, to defer and extend studies for as long as possible while accruing points towards citizenship.  The college fees were monstrously high, and these so-called students in non-existent courses had to work in the kind of jobs that nobody wants to do, in order to get by.  If they continued to pay the fees, all they got was a dubious certificate, of no value in the employment market at all.

Danny is aware before he leaves Sri Lanka that his student visa is a citizenship scam, but when he realises that it’s also a different kind of scam that doesn’t enhance his employment prospects, he is in a bind.  He has used his father’s life savings to get here and he has no money to get home.  He stops paying the fees, overstays his student visa, and thus becomes an illegal immigrant.  When the story opens, he has been in Sydney for four years, living in a storeroom, and exploited by anyone (including his own countrymen) who knows his status and can dob him in to the authorities.  He works as a cleaner, paying a ‘commission’ to his landlord to maintain his silence.  He lives under the radar, without Medicare, without ID, and without a bank account, and he was worked hard to blend invisibly into Sydney’s multicultural mix.


One of his clients is murdered, and Danny knows who did it.  Over the course of a day, the novel traces his dilemma: if he says nothing, the perpetrator gets away with it, but if he reports it, he will be deported as an illegal immigrant. As the blurb says:

Danny must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights nevertheless has responsibilities.

Along the way, Adiga takes many pot shots at Australian racism, its harsh immigration regime and the contradictions of the bureaucracy.  Some of it is funny, and some of it is poignant.  But the novel is too long and not only does it wear thin after a while, it loses its narrative tension because the endgame becomes blindingly obvious.

Tanjil Rashid reviewed it for The Guardian.

BTW Wikipedia says that Adiga is an Indo-Australian writer.  This is presumably because although born in Madras, he completed his secondary education here, and still retains citizenship.  But he completed the rest of education elsewhere and lives in Mumbai.  Much as I have admired his previous work, I’ve never claimed him as an Australian author… If Amnesty were a better novel, his identity would be an issue for the Miles Franklin to wrestle with.  What is an Australian anyway, eh?


Just this week, our PM has told international students to ‘go home’.  They are not eligible for any pandemic assistance.  Yes, some of them come from very wealthy families.  But some of them come from families who have scraped up everything they have to get here, to get a legitimate education in Australia, to enhance their family’s prospects back in their home country.  Some of them are here studying medicine or education so that they can contribute to society in developing countries.  The price of air fares has sky-rocketed and they are expected to leave without their qualification and without any guarantee that the fees they have paid will be refunded.  No doubt this is a scenario that is playing out in western cities all over the world.

Author: Aravind Adiga
Title: Amnesty
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2020
Design by Lucy Scholes, Picador Art Department, jacket images by Shutterstock
ISBN: 9781509879045, pbk., 256 pages
Source: won in a giveaway from the Sydney Review of Books.



  1. It is clear this government and many governments before it care nothing for how we are perceived in Asia, and are quite prepared to be parties to these education/immigration scams run by their mates which only emphasize the racism which with we as a nation treat our neighbours.


    • I think they shut most of them down a few years ago now, Bill.


      • The news (pre-Covid19) seemed to contain plenty of stories of bogus colleges closing down and leaving students stranded with nothing to show for their fees.


        • Well, it’s my recollection that there were reforms some years ago. A friend of mine teaching in a TAFE was overwhelmed by the amount of work she had to do to document that her course was legit. I think it was under the TPS (Tuition Protection Scheme) which regulates the industry and has got rid of the Mickey Mouse hairdressing and accountancy colleges, it also has advice for the student under the current crisis. see
          It seems to me that it’s fair enough for the government to offload wealthy students back to where they came from, and once they’re gone, we should take care of the rest.


  2. I was thinking this book sounds really good but it sounds like you weren’t convinced by it. I’m intrigued why an “Indian” author chose a Sri Lankan as his main character…


    • The concept is good, but it drags on too long.
      I’m guessing he chose a Sri Lankan because it’s not so long since the civil war sent brought many refugees especially Tamils to Australia?


      • Interesting… isn’t this cultural appropriation? 🤔😉


  3. I like novels set over a single day for the economy but as you say it drags a bit then it sounds like this wasn’t entirely successful. I’ve not heard of those bogus colleges but now I’m wondering if we’ve had similar scams in the UK.


    • Yes, I think you did. Because when I was Googling to write my answer to Bill (above), what came up first in my search was sites about the UK situation.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This crisis is going to affect so many people in so many ways. I’d like to think that the human race will come out the other side with more care and compassion for others, but the cynic in me thinks there will still be the Trumps and Johnsons of this world who care about nothing except themselves and money.


    • I can see why you feel that way.
      And yet, all of us have had, in the past, reforming governments with inspiring leaders. After WW2, think of Teddy Roosevelt, Clement Attlee and in Australia Ben Chifley.
      For all their power That Clown in America and That Fool in Britain rely on one thing and one thing only to retain it, and that’s the will of the people. We get what we vote for, and when our side isn’t ‘in’ it’s up to each one of us to try to convince as many others as we can, to vote for what we want next time. It is do-able, we just have to work for it. Disaffection and alienation is our worst enemy…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Amnesty […]


  6. […] Motto I live by: Amnesty, by Aravind Adiga […]


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