Like many great works of fiction written before it, Nilanjana Roy’s Black River aims to tell the reader why terrible acts of violence happen to little girls and why they are the most vulnerable members of any community. In that sense, it is a murder mystery that is a why-done-it instead of a whodunnit.
Black River is a Delhi noir that explores the aftermath of the murder of a young girl in a seemingly-quiet small town on the bank of Yamuna. It is a police procedural that uncovers the social hierarchies of Indian society. This book is about how people process death and live with loss in Delhi – loss of a loved one, loss of physical and political space, and loss of autonomy. It makes the reader wonder who owns rivers and riverbanks. What is the nature of the relationship that Yamuna has with the most vulnerable in Delhi?
“Why are you writing this book?” Roy’s agent and friend, David Godwin, asked her.
“Because what has bothered me about these crimes is not the question of who is the murderer,” she said. “So often in India, the murderer is known to everyone and if there is a certain mystery around it, it is very rare that the killer doesn’t reveal himself soon. The killer is largely from the community, and people often know. I think I was more preoccupied with the question of what justice looks like in this scenario. Sometimes it seems like all of our institutions and all of our systems are designed so that we cannot see, so it is easier to look away. What happens with a murder is that you can continue to look away. Many of my characters have the option to look away, to move on with their life, to let it go, or to take the investigation to a certain point but no further. Or they can go through the discomfort of facing what is actually happening. I think I am much more interested in the fracture and fissures of the community that appears to be wholesome. What writers like Toni Morrison, and perhaps writers like me, are looking at is not who is the killer but the question of where does that rot come from?”
She added: “That uneasiness you feel – I wonder why we don’t shout louder for some things – why are some murders mourned more than others, why do we move so much towards innocent victims as though the pain of prostitutes doesn’t matter. One of the things that is important to me, of course, as a writer, you are not being objective. Objectivity is for the journalist, but I did want to reflect the absences, the things we overlook as a society. And I wanted to reflect that with accuracy.”
In a conversation with Scroll, Roy elaborated on the reasons for writing the novel, if a murder mystery can be a social commentary, her roles as a journalist and writer and how they are similar and different, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:
How did you arrive at the title for your book, Black River? Does the title relate to the darkness, the death and murkiness around the river Yamuna, or does it indicate ecological degradation of the river?
Murkiness is a good word. Blackness to me isn’t necessarily always murky, it also conjures up depth for me. It has pollution. Some of it was also about the flow of migrants in. I was looking for a word that conveyed something that seemed to be opaque, but when you look a little deeper has layers and layers. There is the murkiness of the human heart but there is also the depth of the river.
Is Black River a departure from your work as a journalist? Or would you say that you have been around these themes and subjects for a while?
I have always had two sides to my journalism and my life – one of them is very cheerful and happy. Food critic, travel journalism, book reviews – these are the things I had a lot of fun with. The other side – I don’t think of myself as a journalist but rather as someone who likes standing around and paying very close attention to what’s going on. I am usually the one who is at a protest march, staring at the police and staring at the crowd, but there is a connecting line – The Wildlings and A Hundred Names of Darkness were the first novels that came out a while ago.
They were great fun but there was also a hint in there of about what it is like to be in a city as a stray animal or as an outsider. Despite my many privileges, I think my attention has been drawn much more to what’s been happening at the periphery. I looked at the city and wrote the first draft of Black River. It was basically like a letter to the editor that you write when you are angry at what’s happening to the city. It was terrible fiction and once that had run its course, then I chucked it. I said let us write what I am upset over, what I want to tell you about, and what I want to know about.
One of the reasons I stopped being a journalist was because I found it almost impossible to move on from story to story. No matter how good you are as a journalist, at some point you have to let go. Some of the people I respect the most whether it is Neha Dixit or Priyanka Dubey – Priyanka, who wrote No Nation for Women, “the book” on sexual violence in India. Years after she wrote the book, she is still in touch with people, with some of the families and some of the victims. And that is what makes it hard to be a journalist – the fact that those relationships don’t get cut off when you cut off. I did a small story for the New York Times years ago on homeless women and that radically shifted my sense of what the city is like.
The main difference between me and Chand, Rabia, and Khalid isn’t just English speaking and comfortable housing. Those are superficial. The biggest difference is that I go home everyday with an expectation of security. People like me would get very agitated and say what is this country coming to when our sense of personal safety is threatened but the more you travel and the more you walk around, you will meet people who live with a tremendous sense of insecurity at every level either because of their religious identities or because their homes are going to be temporary for years and they are told that they don’t merit a place. Or because just like Chand, they can’t quite fit into the world that was made for them but they also don’t know where to go in the world after. And what struck me most was how lightly many people carried this. It is not a burden, it is the way things are. You accept that part of your life is going to be terribly insecure and then you when you turn your attention to your friendships, to making a home within the temporariness, it is extraordinary, and I think the definition of what caring is and what courage is has changed through this book.
I find it baffling when people can look away – whether they are looking away from stray dogs or the kind of lives children have. Where did we learn to look away? We talk about this, and it applies to everything, the caste system for sure, but as you go up through from one class to another, you are taught to look away – look at your own beautiful home. If I confine my gaze to the colony I live in, everything is beautiful there and everything is very unfair. But it is beautiful on the surface.
What would happen if we all saw?
I think Arundhati Roy is one such person, she has never been able to look away, whether she is right or wrong in her gaze, but she has not been able to look away from certain things. Her gaze has been particularly piercing. Another such person is Perumal Murugan. It might be more fashionable to write about caste but when he wrote Pyre and One Part Woman, he was looking at what was around him, and without indicting he was just doing the very powerful thing of saying this is it – this is how it works, this is how ordinary people in a village can end up pushing a young woman to hide under a rock for fear of her life, just because of caste. So I don’t have that kind of clarity, I am very much in little ways a prisoner of my own background but I have restlessness and I have empathy. Black River took so long because you can’t just take people’s life, it takes a long time to move on and you can make some assumptions about how people in the village live, or how a farmer lives. It is only when you go there that you learn how it really is.
Black River is a murder mystery that is also social commentary. Do you think that there is scope for great moral literature in crime stories?
Any genre – horror, crime, SFF – is open to great works of literature. But crime particularly. And it has already produced books that open up a lot more, it is a capacious genre. And if you look at writers – our own or Scottish or Scandinavian – they have used the genre to ask big moral questions, for great character sketches, and how cities to come into being.
So yes, crime is attractive to me because it is not a confining genre. It is a genre that you can take and spin in any direction you want, and it is fabulous for someone like me who deals in ambiguity more than anything else...It is a smuggler genre. You can smuggle so much in the crime genre.
I think sometimes Indian English Writing tends to look away from caste. It is as if the writers decide that a certain kind of story is going to be about caste, and other stories are not going to be about caste. But caste is present in our every day lives. Do you think that caste is missing from Black River?
I never sat down and said that I am going to write a book about gender injustice or religious strife or caste. That’s not how it works. I think fiction works best when it comes to the truth of how we live together as humans and what are the challenges and sufferings in our path, and your characters pretty much tell you the story. One of my reviewers pointed out that actually caste is everywhere in Black River but because I wasn’t writing for the West, therefore I wasn’t writing for an audience to whom I had to explain all of this.
If you look at this book, there are instances where caste is specifically pointed out like in the scene at the morgue. Morgues are technically run by caste. Caste has seeped into the system of morgues. The morgue in the book was run by the salaries that went to dominant caste doctors but the work that is considered polluted – of actually opening up the bodies – was dumped on people who were not from the dominant caste. That is interesting because I wanted to get at how everything works. I did not want to leave caste out, it is there again, but because it is not signposted, you might miss it.
The way I wrote caste in Teertarpur is, it is right there, under your nose but it’s in the architecture of the place. Too much of the writing from the sociological point of view is not good for fiction. It lays there under the surface – you want to be able to see it. I decided I was just going to trust the reader. Caste was never absent from Black River. The focus was more on the changing shapes of religious tension. Caste is woven into the fabric.
How do you do justice to your characters when they belong to a different class? You don’t look at the lives of these characters – a farmer, a labourer, and so on – the way most people look and the way they want to look. Were you ever afraid that your readers might think that you are using a trauma plot here? Because there isn’t just suffering to the lives of your characters, these characters have dreams, they came to the city with dreams, and there is the joy that they have lived with – were you worried that people want to look at these lives in a certain way, with a certain gaze and that they won’t find that in this book?
You have mentioned trauma plot but I think you have answered the question. I believed in the validity of these lives. They(characters) might be fictional but they have a reality, and one of the reasons why maybe Munia’s death is very powerful to me is because it is felt. I did not write it just because killing off a young girl is a shocking way to start. It came out of a lot of grief, it was a complicated grief. At some point in your career you see one death too many, or three or four, or 16, what is the number when you say, Enough? I just wanted to write something that said that this little girl mattered. Even if she is absent in the book, the fact that she was so real in the first few pages allows you to stop and maybe for a moment mourn the rest of them – the people whom you would otherwise walk by.
I don’t think I was worried about what people would think, I was so occupied with doing justice to the characters. I don’t think we should write stories being fearful of how they are going to be received. Arundhati Roy has some brilliant things to say about the limits of cultural appropriation, she is not against it, but she is pointing out where there is a certain trap. I think there is a way to write which is imbued with respect and where you try to honour the integrity of other people’s life, you don’t write so much as an outsider, you write as somebody as someone who has invisibilised themselves as much as possible in order to bring a refracted truth. If you can do justice to those lives, that is it.
Everyone has to come up against the beliefs of their times and come to their own compass. Why is it that some of the writers we admire are people who found their own path, the only thing I kept on asking from my early readers was had I done justice to the book. I was only concerned about that, I was answerable to my characters.
How did you start writing book critiques?
I think it was the kindness of other people. I wrote a book review for Biblio when I was 15. I used to write a lot. And they were very encouraging to the young me. Years later, Tony Joseph, who was my first boss at the Business Standard sent me an assignment. Instead of the classic entry test they send you, he asked me to write a review of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. So I found myself sweating over this, trying to read the book in the middle of a Delhi summer – we were a very young couple and we had no air conditioning. I sat there reading the book for two nights and I completely forgot about the power cuts. I wrote a review and the paper actually carried it and that’s how it started.
A book review can be so much more, the idea that books are separate from real life or cut off from real life is not true. The book review column can carry so much. Sometimes you can put yourself up as a judgemental authority but to keep a conversation going between yourself and the readers is important, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
The craft of reviewing the book is very different craft because you are bringing your lived experiences to the book, trying to separate out prejudices and to a certain extent the question you are asking is, “Is this book good or not good? What does this conversation add to? What does it bring in? Is it going to be timeless or is it a beautiful book that is going to last for one season?”