Nilanjana S Roy’s Black River is a smooth departure from her earlier fiction – two delightfully subversive fantasy novels about bands of feral cats that inhabit Delhi – The Wildings (2012) and its sequel, The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). Black River marks a fluid shift from fantasy to noir, setting this story of a savage murder and the subsequent quest for justice in the liminal space between the urban sprawl of chaotic Delhi and the fast-changing agrarian landscape that lies outside of the metropolis.

The book explores the grimy world of crime, opening like a police procedural, but soon turning into something that defies labels of genre. Not so much a whodunit, the focus of the narrative is not on plot twists and red herrings. Instead of engaging overmuch with formal or formulaic concerns, it mulls over questions of ethics and justice and is deeply cognisant of the divisive lines of class and religion in urban as well as rural India today. Alongside, and crucially, it also asks of its privileged reader an immersion into a world of discomfort – the discomfort of being displaced, of living on the margins, of being complicit in over-consumption and inequity.

The skewed politics of justice

The narrative opens at Teetarpur in 2017, a village at the edge of the Delhi-Haryana border, we are told. It is a place so ordinary that it is “not known to have inspired a line in a film song or even a mithai, has never produced so much as a celebrity or a famous politician.” An anonymous, insignificant place, happy to be the obverse of the hectic pace of the big cities it wilfully looks away from, Teetarpur is thrown into sudden disorder when a child, eight-year-old Munia, small and slight like the bird she is named after, is found murdered.

In steps the local policeman, Ombir Singh, jaded, permanently exhausted and sleep-deprived, typical noir detective as also representative of impersonal state machinery, neither belonging entirely to the place and people he serves, nor entirely an outsider. The primary suspect is the village madman, a man lost in his own traumatic past, and conveniently, for the sake of identifying an easy aggressor, Muslim, in a predominantly Hindu village. His religious identity and the villagers’ keenness on punishing him for it, is the novel’s first indication of the deep communal schism that defines our social spaces. There is also the specter of class that defines all social interaction.

Munia’s father, Chand, is a farmer whose land, fortuitously or not, borders that of Jolly Singh, the richest man in the village. Singh’s intervention necessitates the big guns and “Delhi boy,” SSP Ashwini Pilania of the Haryana IPS cadre, is sent to Teetarpur to head investigations. The pursuit of justice and the politics of the optics of development and the skewed nature of the distribution of the fruits of said development, form the primary territory of the novel.

A world that no longer pretends at inclusivity

While murder and outrage and punishment (legal and extra-legal) play out, Roy directs the reader’s attention to the rise of the extreme Right and recurrent episodes of rioting, lynching, and other forms of communal violence that this dynamic engenders. The narrative goes back in time to trace Chand’s years in Delhi, first as a daily wager and later as the butcher’s apprentice in Badshah Miyan’s meat shop in Mehrauli. Chand’s is the life of the itinerant, tenuously connected to his land, despite having made the decision to sever himself from it. Through the stories of Chand, and of his friends Khalid and Rabia, a complex picture of the rising communal tensions in Delhi begins to emerge.

As the story moves back and forth in time, it exposes the vicious truths of a majoritarian culture that imposes restrictions on not just religious practice and lifestyles but also on access to space. At Bright Dairy, a settlement with an obvious working-class identity, Muslims are intimidated and coerced into selling their property and moving. “Business is down,” Badshah Miyan says, about another part of the city. “They make us close our shops, all of us, every time there is a festival or even a prayer meeting close by. We are losing customers. The Hindus go to Hindu butchers or order online these days.”

The names of the places might be fictional, but the events that take place and the attack on the financial resources of an entire community in the pursuit of a communal agenda is only too real. Roy foregrounds history when she mentions the rioting that erupted in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. She writes of settlements that are deemed illegal and disrupted with brutality. She directs the reader’s attention, over and over again, and yet, absolutely unobtrusively, to acts of violence that showcase an increasing apathy in a world that no longer pretends at inclusivity.

The novel posits a solution to this divisiveness, when Chand says, “We’ll live in the cracks outside the gates,” but the reader will probably share the other characters’ lack of optimism when it comes to finding cracks and liminalities that are accepting of difference.

It is a measure of the writer’s skill that even as she gives us a pageturner, she brings to it an acknowledgement of serious concerns. The threat of abuse and assault that hangs over women who work in the domestic sector, the vulnerability of migrant workers, the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse and the horrors of child trafficking, are all sensitive issues that are handled without either pedantry or sensationalism.

When Roy has a reporter ask, “Are India’s girls ever safe?” the irony is inescapable. India’s girls are not safe, of course, but the media’s less-than-empathetic coverage of terrible incidents of abuse and violence does nothing towards either creating awareness or pushing the cause of safety.

Teetarpur and its surrounding villages, like much else of the country, has kept caste discrimination alive and thriving. When autopsies are to be performed, doctors, typically from the top echelons of the caste hierarchy, refuse to touch the bodies – “who knows who comes from where” – and have under-qualified, “lower caste” young men with rudimentary training do it for them. Strictures of caste pollution remain unchanged and largely unchallenged in 21st century India.

One book, many worlds

One of the most remarkable parts of the book is when the narrative takes us to Chand, Khalid, and Rabia’s creation of a domestic idyll on the banks of the Yamuna, a river deemed inhospitable, even hostile in most contemporary accounts. There is poetry in Roy’s imaging of the Yamuna: “The river still exerts a half-felt pull on the capital’s subconscious, infecting its citizens with watery dreams and silted nightmares from time to time. ‘River of sorrows, river of tears, the river that swallows the world poisons,’ Khalid sings to Rabia and Chand, ‘she bears them in her own flowing body until even her waters can carry no more.’”

Roy’s prose, when she writes of the Yamuna, has the same magic that the reader has come to associate with her Wildings books. She also makes a rather evocative study of vulnerabilities – of grief and love and even romance. Friendships are forged across decades and families are formed outside of kinship ties. This leitmotif of human connections and a consequent pursuit of human values seems central to this story.

With all its literary merit, Black River is also a book that is likely to appeal to most readers of crime fiction. The mystery itself is not particularly difficult to solve and any crime fiction aficionados will have figured it out way before the final reveal. The denouement does have a deliciously ’80s cinematic feel, but it would be unforgiveable to explain how.

Roy does noir and does it well, but she also, almost covertly, raises questions of ecological catastrophes and environmental degradation. Her narrative is steeped in history and sociological realism and appropriately so, because in the post-truth world we inhabit, history is often erased and facts are often suppressed and we need to turn more and more to fiction, to understand better the human condition, its tragedies and its truths. Black River delivers on all those counts.

Black River, Nilanjana S Roy, Westland.