Anita Nair’s Hot Stage is a gripping thriller and so much more. It is an incisive engagement with society in a state of flux. If we lived in times that were less politically charged, I would have enjoyed this book simply for the twists and turns that lead you towards a climax fraught with tension and nail-biting suspense. But then, we live in an age of extreme churn that brings to mind the oft-quoted yet deeply resonant lines in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...  

Rationality, a collateral damage

You don’t have to be a very keen observer to notice the ongoing tussle between two wildly different versions of reality. In such a struggle, rationality is bound to be a casualty. So, it is not surprising that the third novel in the Borei Gowda noir series begins with the murder of a rationalist, Professor Mudgood. The professor, though a revered intellectual, is not the soul of discretion. He is, in fact, a provocateur par excellence. Some people view the murder as the price of offending religious sentiments. Despite my vehement support for free speech, I found myself reflecting on the need for caution. That train of thought was broken when the novel reminded me of something I had almost forgotten:

“Anyone can choose to be an atheist but you can’t mock people who believe. You can’t ridicule people for their faith. I understand how religion is being used to manipulate things. But that doesn’t give him the right to reduce faith in what he called ‘fairytales for grown-up children’. …’

“I see,” Gowda said not seeing it at all. He had heard these sentiments repeated before and the men and women who had made them were still alive.   

Though the action of the novel takes place in 2012, it forces a confrontation with the here and now. I thought of our famously argumentative Indians who once spoke without weighing every word and looking over their shoulder. Being irreverent could trigger a heated exchange. You could be bombarded with invectives or be struck by a shoe. But murder was beyond your imagination.

The homicide appears like a political assassination, but the cops don’t get carried away by mere conjecture. Again and again, you are reminded of the importance of evidence. The cops pursue the leads, join the dots, ferret out information by visiting dingy bars, scour the site of the crime, and even put their lives on the line. As Nair captures the intricacies of a police probe, you become newly aware of a simple fact: the process is not meant to be a punishment. A methodical approach can help you get to the truth.

ACP Borei Gowda is an intrepid cop with sharp instincts. I expected him to display those qualities. I also knew that the case on his hands would be hard to crack. Since this is crime fiction, I took these as a given. What stood out was Gowda’s simple wisdom:

“Sir, do you think this is a terrorist sleeper cell?” Santosh asked, not quite meeting Gowda’s eyes. He knew that Gowda could very well snap his head off for that. “Iqbal Buqhari – he is Muslim, after all.”

“Terrorists have no religion.” Gowda glared at Santosh. “They worship their own immortality by killing or dying. If Iqbal Buqhari is a terrorist, it’s not because he’s Muslim.”

Creating ‘facts’

With a mind unclouded by prejudice, Gowda can make sound judgements. Amidst the sound and fury drowning out voices of sanity, Gowda became a beacon of hope for me. The tenacious cop is determined to unearth the facts and build a rock-solid case. At one point, he describes a hunch as a vaporous thing. In our topsy-turvy world, facts are akin to vapour and rumours hold power. Before he is killed, Professor Mudgood performs a strange experiment that shows how swiftly hearsay can morph into “fact”:

His daughter had bustled the moaning Mary Susheela into her car … He could already see the rumours shaking themselves off every parthenium plant on his land: Mary was bitten by a scorpion; Mary was bitten by a bandicoot; God knows what bit her. They say that the land is haunted. Haven’t you heard the strange noises that emerge on new moon nights? … Professor Mudgood chuckled at the thought of how hearsay would soon be treated as fact.

The legwork, brainstorming and forensic reports make it evident that this is a high-profile case in which the professor is collateral damage. The bits and pieces of information coalesce into a clear picture. It turns out that something is rotten in the state of Bangalore. Gowda and his team get to the bottom of a cesspool of illegal activity.

As Nair exposes the sordid underbelly of a shiny cityscape, she slips in observations that speak to the current moment. It is the subtext of the novel that distinguishes it from a run-of-the-mill thriller. Nair reveals the parallels between the orchestration of violence and blood sports. As ordinary men get locked in a death battle, the high and mighty cheer from the sidelines. In this gory spectacle, those fighting are mere puppets being goaded by their masters:

“… You are up against more than revolvers,” Gowda growled. “… There is something about the reek of blood and the cries of pain that excites them. At that point, they cease to be men and become predators on the scent of a kill. …”

Gowda is not a superman. He is simply a cop who knows his job and does it with unswerving dedication. As I read the book, I quietly lauded him for an achievement that would win him no medal or promotion. Still, it is of great consequence:

“I was a patriarchal misogynist once,” Gowda said … “I treated women like they were subaltern creatures. I am not that man anymore.”

The apologists for toxic masculinity might want to take a leaf out of Gowda’s book. It might be sobering to read about the bestial impulses unleashed by a lurid display of machismo. Hot Stage is both intense and insightful.

Hot Stage: A Borei Gowda Novel, Anita Nair, HarperCollins India.