Journalist Atharva Pandit chanced upon a news report about the alleged rape and murder of three sisters, aged six, nine and 11, in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district in 2013. The case is still unsolved. Pandit, who was 16 at the time, kept following the case for weeks, and decided to write about it.

Pandit’s decade-long attempts have finally fructified. His debut novel Hurda is a polyphonic maze which offers insights into the social atmosphere of Murwani, the fictional Mahrashtra town where the sisters are found dead. Caste and gender are major fault lines in this corner of India where crime and corruption abound and justice is an elusive concept. Holding the narrative together is an urban journalist, Chitranshu, who is not completely sure why he is visiting Murwani six years after the incident and trying to write a book.

Pandit, born and raised in Mumbai’s Andheri, says he has always been into writing and journalism because “nothing else made sense, and writing and reading were the only things I was ever any good at.” The 27-year-old novelist spoke to Scroll about the origins of Hurda, his writing process, journalism, and crime fiction. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you pick the deaths of the three sisters as the subject matter for your first novel?
When the news of the real-life crime broke, back in 2013, I think I was 16, and I read a lot of newspaper reports about the incident. Some of them were spot reports; others were long-form, feature-length pieces and then there were the follow-ups. I remember there was a two-page Sunday Express feature by Smita Nair, which had a very real impact on me. That story was a terrific piece of journalism detailed and empathetic. A piece of journalism that actually makes you feel something. I kept re-reading these reports over the years, and I tried, in my own way, to keep track of this case.

I was obsessed with this case, but then again obsession might not be the right word, because much like Chitranshu, I carried on with my life, there were months in between when I did not think about the case at all. So it wasn’t the life-affirming or life-destroying obsession, a la Robert Graysmith from Zodiac.

But I kept thinking about it, and writing about it, because I think even I wasn’t really sure why I was so attached to this particular case that’s one of the reasons I wrote Hurda. To understand my attachment to a case that, seen one way, has nothing really to do with me. But I don’t think I have managed to answer that question through this book either. It’s still a mystery.

Maybe the answer is as simple as it having something to do with the fact that I was 16 and impressionable and trying to be a writer and that reading about this case really made me want to write about it. I think in some way you are marked by it. It’s like that story Nawazuddin Siddiqui tells about the murder that happened in his locality when he was a kid and how he used that for the climactic scene of Gangs of Wasseypur. The things that you see, hear, and read when you are of that age, a child or a teenager, I think they shape the way you perceive and face the world eventually. And the way you think about such incidents and the way you respond to them feels all that more personal because of the age factor.

Why an ambivalent novel with no closure instead of weaving the case into a popular format, like, say, a whodunnit?
I think I have always been drawn to things that remain unsolved or unresolved. Maybe because we pretend to know so much about the world, but perhaps there are more things in this world that we don’t know than those that we do. We have made all these structures and hierarchies and systems in our society, essentially to get a better grip on things. But I think despite all that, there are times when we just don’t know, we just can’t solve things. There are times when we don’t understand how the world works, and why it works in a certain way. I wanted to explore that through this case, which remains, to my knowledge, unsolved. That’s also why there are so many characters and perspectives in Hurda. It’s not just Chinese whispers, there are all these people with their own set of perspectives on what happened to the sisters, and all these perspectives are a product of their experiences. But all these opinions and perspectives borne out of their experiences are worth nothing when it comes to actually solving the case.

The book reminded me of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Virgin Suicides.
I think the narrative technique that Eugenides applies is one of a chorus. I haven’t read it. I need to rectify that ASAP. The most immediate influence on Hurda was Memories of Murder. I was listening to its haunting soundtrack throughout the writing of the book. And before that came Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives and 2666, Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess, Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls, Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday; Zodiac, of course, and Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. All of them influenced, in their own unique ways, the structure and the themes of Hurda.

You started working on Hurda in 2013, right after the murders. What were the early years like?
The first couple of years were spent writing and failing. I would write a draft, and if I was lucky, I would manage to complete it. More often than not I would abandon a draft about a hundred-odd pages in. That happened for various reasons. There were problems with the voice. For the most part, I was attempting to write the novel in the third-person omniscient. Then a close third-person. Then from Chitranshu’s POV, in both the third and first person. Then an entire draft in Q&A format. Nothing was working.

In 2018, you graduated from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Why the decision to be a journalist?
I have always been very interested in long-form stories, the kind of stories and profiles the New Yorker and Esquire used to do. CJ Chivers’ “The School”, on the Beslan school massacre, is a great example. It’s a piece of reportage I read every year. And then there was a time when I began reading Marie Colvin, Anthony Shadid, and Christopher Hitchens’ dispatches from the war front and all of those countries they covered, and then I was inevitably introduced to Ryszard Kapuscinski and the Polish school of reportage and the various methods of true crime.

In India, of course, I would wait for the newest The Caravan profile and I would dream of writing something like that for the magazine. All of this was instrumental in pushing me towards journalism because I figured that since the only thing I know how to do is writing, I might as well try and earn a living out of it. Of course, that sounds hilarious at this point.

Did a day job in journalism give you direction with the novel?
I am not really sure. For the novel, things started to fall into place when I went to Bhandara in 2018. I had just been placed, and we had a break in between, so I went to the place where this had happened. I didn’t really want to speak to anybody, I just wanted to get a sense of that place. I wanted to do, as Don DeLillo puts it, “fiction writer’s research.” But I did end up speaking to some people, which went into the confused and bumbling vibe of the last part of the book because that’s how I felt and that’s exactly how my “investigation” was: confused and bumbling. I was very naïve, of course, thinking that I would be able to just walk in and get stories out of people about a tragedy that most would rather put behind them. But yes, the trip gave me a much-needed perspective, and the atmosphere for the book. This is where polyphony came in. This concept of several people speaking about the same event is something I have been fascinated by ever since I read The Savage Detectives, back in 2012. I figured that it would work in this case.

I think this aspect of various methods being deployed to tell one story in the third person, in the first person, in a chorus, in the form of reportage eventually freed up the book for me.

You become part of the South Asia Speaks class of 2021. Prayaag Akbar was your mentor for the novel. What was happening with Hurda at this stage?
I managed to finish a draft that I thought was to my satisfaction and kept it aside because I think that’s how you understand whether a draft is really working or not. You keep it aside and forget about it. Zadie Smith advised doing that somewhere.

I came back to this draft after about eight or nine months and realised that it was not working. By this time the manuscript had most of the elements that would go into the final draft, but it was too burdened. The structure of the book was mostly there, but the language wasn’t working. There was no flow to it.

So I attempted another draft, but I was too frustrated by this time, and I had convinced myself that fiction writing wasn’t for me. I was writing short stories etc, but nothing really was working out to my satisfaction. I was very dejected and I had made up my mind that this fiction writing business was not going to work out.

That’s when Sonia Faleiro announced the South Asia Speaks programme on Twitter. I thought this was the chance. If I don’t get selected for this, pack up and don’t think about fiction at all, at least for the next couple of years. If I do that means I can give this another shot. I was actually trying to work on another book at that time, so I pitched that book and got selected and paired with Prayaag. That really boosted my confidence. The confidence to write and to be critiqued and to accept that criticism and learn from it. It wasn’t just the technical aspect of writing, but simply this freedom to talk about books, how some books have mattered to us in life, and why discussing these things was of immense help. I think this kind of thing is really helpful for the writing to get going. Even here, the book that I had proposed was taking its time to properly take shape, so I focused, once again, on Hurda, but this time with a different mindset. I credit SAS and its wonderful ecosystem for helping me develop that mindset where I could sit down and write another draft with the confidence it demanded.

Why increase the ages of the sisters? The eldest one in the Bhandara case was 11. Anisha is 14.
To make Anisha’s actions, and the accusations that come her way, a little more believable. I think people would still consider an 11-year-old a kid; a 14-year-old, on the other hand, is a teenager, closer to becoming an adult, which for the people of Murwani, at least those who see her that way, is enough justification for what she did and then what happened to her.

Why use the journalist as the framework? Because it’s the obvious choice since you’re a journalist?
Chitranshu had to be a journalist because a journalistic investigation or procedural, if you will, is different from a police procedural. Chitranshu is doing this because he wants to write a book about a story he had covered before. He forgot about the story, but now he finds it attractive because of its premise, because of its potential. What should that tell him about himself?

I was also interested, as we discussed, in the why of it. Why is Chitranshu interested in telling this story? And how is he going to go about it, considering that he is an outsider? So yes, that was another reason.

Like Chitranshu, I am from the city and an outsider to the locale where the book happens. In his interview with you, Sudip Sharma drew a difference between the writers of curiosity and writers of familiarity. Chitranshu, I think, is the former, which is great, but then a writer of curiosity must also have a sense of empathy and understanding towards the people and the story he is curious about. It’s a very sensitive thing. Has Chitranshu been up to it? I think readers get to decide that by the end of the book.

Did you make Chitranshu a sleazy character in order to make a conclusive statement about “rape culture”?
The one thing that I wanted to explore was the complexity, if you will, of individuals. I hate it when people are classified on the basis of their political opinions or biases, or what they retweet or “like” or put on their Instagram stories. But that’s how we judge people and their characters these days. And I think that’s very faulty. For example, Chitranshu would be someone who would stand up against bigotry, who would stand up against casteism. He is a well-read man whose opinions, one would assume, are backed by facts, whatever those are. But then he is also the way that he is in the novel. So how do you categorise him then? Of course, anybody who knows the kind of things Chitranshu does would categorise him as a complete A-hole, a man who should be avoided. But anybody who has only seen him speak about, for example, bigotry, or about the current regime, would think that he is a decent man who cares for minorities and the marginalised and their rights.

And the other thing is that he doesn’t consider what he does as rape. That’s another thing that infuriates me. That men get to decide the definitions of comfortable and uncomfortable for women and get away with it. That’s something I observed during the #MeToo movement. A lot of men I thought I knew suddenly started speaking about what should and should not be considered a sexual assault.

So Chitranshu was borne out of all of this anger and disgust, but also yes, I did not want those reading it in the cities to feel comfortable knowing that it only happens out there, in the back of the beyond somewhere. Because again that’s how we have categorised rural landscape: either it is romantic and idyllic, harking back to the “simpler days”, or it is savage and violent, a place where, when things like these happen, people in the urban milieu would say: of course, expected that it would happen there. Chitranshu, to a certain extent, is also a product of this sort of culture and thought process.

How did you create the very distinct and peculiar voices of the various characters, which are numbering, at least, 20?
Through tonal shifts, because while people speak the same language, the way that they speak the language is different for different people. But in doing all this, I think the important thing is to ensure that this difference is nuanced and subtle because otherwise, one is at the risk of coming off as pretentious or showy.

Also, every voice has a character to it. The way people speak says a lot about them, perhaps much more than what any third-person narrator can describe. And I have always been very interested in multiple-narrator novels. Some of my favourite novels, the novels I go back to often, are narrated by multiple narrators. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, for example, or A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. These are novels which provide the reader with multiple perspectives on the same event or same people, which has always fascinated me because it tells you something about human nature, the ability to look at a single event through several different perspectives. That’s what I wanted to do in Hurda. I have based all of these characters on real-life people, but they are all people I have met and interacted with over the course of years in various places across Maharashtra.

The internal politics of the town is also very clear.
The politics is specific to the region but also includes the politics I have seen in other rural regions I have frequented while growing up. It’s a very personal sort of politics, a politics which is enmeshed in actual, everyday life. For instance, Tatya is an influential person, but people in Murwani probably meet him several times during the course of the day, because he is right there, among them. That’s an experience of politics which I found very removed from the way we experience politics in cities. This is also why the approach to politics in Murwani is slightly different than what Chitranshu or anyone who is peeping in from the outside would think it is.

You follow SA Cosby, George Pelecanos, CrimeReads on Instagram. As someone with a healthy interest in crime fiction as a reader and writer, how do you reconcile the open-ended, ambiguous, perhaps, “literary” novel with a crime story or a mystery’s demand to be solved?
It’s like James Sallis wrote in his wonderful intro to Derek Raymond’s He Died with his Eyes Open: “Certainly our highest literature is free to deal with a young woman’s decision to marry, with a young academic’s coming of age, or with four decades in a car dealer’s life. But just as certainly it must deal…with what a guard is said to have remarked at Auschwitz: heir ist kein Warum. There is no why here.”

Crime fiction, I think, is also interested in all the sacred Ws of Journalism: Who, Why, What. It deals with the asking of these questions, and with those who spend their lives asking them and seeking their answers. Of course, we find out the Who eventually, but do we really find out the Why? That’s for us to decide. And that’s the real mystery. So if a crime novel doesn’t conclusively solve the crime at the heart of the book, but if it manages to leave you with a certain set of Whys, I think that’s a good crime novel for me.

But of course, it should also engage. True Detective, for example, is so compelling because it deals with the procedure while also dealing with all the philosophical stuff. It has a structure that keeps you tied to the story. That’s why it was so successful and compelling, I think. So I think even if a crime novel leads us towards a dead end, that’s fine, as long as the journey towards that dead end is fulfilling, and maybe, if we are lucky, tells us something about life as we know it.