Read To Win

Why crime fiction is turning out to be the best way to depict Indian cities in novels

Gritty global noir has always made the metropolis a key player in the plot and atmosphere.

“Bombay doesn’t do night. The sun falls into the sea but darkness doesn’t stand a chance. Every attempt it makes to swallow up the city is defeated by a million neon eyes that open and blink as evening comes; and by the glare of natural gas burning beyond the eastern harbour, illuminating the hill the children call ‘Giant’s Grave’. Each evening, darkness struggles for footholds and hidey holes.”

This is the Mumbai we encounter in writer Jerry Pinto’s absorbing new novel, A Murder in Mahim, a story drenched in loneliness, police corruption, and homosexuality, especially in the context of the Supreme Court ruling of 2013. But true to its title, more than the plot, it is the rhythm of the city that holds the story together, all the while a distinguished presence, one with the novel.

The city and noir fiction have long been partners in crime: the throbbing city would seem quite unreal without shadowy layers of darkness, and crime would cease to thrive without a looming skyline to provide cover, to enable, to abet, to shield, and when time’s up, to expose. What heightens the city-as-muse relationship is the nature of the great megapolis of today, its ruthless pace teeming with criminal possibilities and sordid, complex human connections, pushing the scope of noir fiction to murkier, impenetrable waters.

Crime writers in the west have pulled this off for a while now, and here we are with the Indian versions, with striking, city-slick characters to play a part in their stories, moving from shady alleys to posh neighbourhoods, the murdered and the murderer mere players in the ever expanding maze of concrete. And we, the readers, become as much a part of the game as the victim and the culprit – and indeed the detective on the trail.

Murders are so urban

Browse through some of the new releases in noir fiction and you’ll find many of them go down a similar path: a twisted, gruesome murder(s) that lifts the veil to expose the dark fabric of a modern city, often fictionalised accounts of grisly goings-on we might chance upon in the newspaper on any given day.

“The station was bright with people and activity. It seemed as if everyone was in constant motion, a Bombay phenomenon. It reminded him of what an old Goan aunt who had come to see him had said about the city: ‘Everyone looks as if they’re going to collide and then they veer away at the last minute.’ How could there be a sex market here?”

So writes Pinto in his novel. But in the city, it would seem, anything can happen, and the possibilities of what could lie beneath its shiny surface are endless.

In Abheek Barua’s gory thriller City of Death (The Beheading in the digital version), the unnamed city is obviously Kolkata, playing host to a couple of sensationalist beheadings of disturbed young women. You don’t need to read between the lines to get a sense of a city crumbling, struggling, failing at even decent economic prospects. Where’s the better life for those who move to it from faraway hometowns, are they losing more than they gain? The city-life clearly seems to have taken a toll on the world-weary protagonists that populate many of these novels.

Early on in Barua’s mystery, we meet the pill-popping, heavy drinking police detective Sohini Sen, who’s contemplating suicide.

“She has chosen Goa instead as she does not want to die in this city. She wants to spend her last moments away from the stench of garbage, the sewers in the impossibly narrow lanes overflowing with the piss of squatting men, the blaring horns of cars careening down the rutted streets and the peeling paint of the rain-drenched houses covered with dirty green moss clumped together in a medieval disregard for the principles of modern planning. She wants to die in a pretty place, picture-postcard pretty.”

Sen doesn’t get her picture-postcard pretty suicide wish, but instead, is handed a murder case involving the daughter of a very wealthy man. The kind of murder that will keep newspapers busy for days.

“This is an impatient city, a streetfighting city used to punches, bruises and screams till it gets what it wants. It certainly won’t take the murder of a young woman in its own backyard lying down. The opposition party led by Tarok Panda, the newspapers, the television channels and the army of amateur opinion-makers on the social media want a head on the pike.”

This sort of frenetic buzz and noise charges novels like City of Death, deafening on one level, but aptly reflecting the unrelenting rhythm of the hectic city life. Barua makes an attempt to explain the air of discontent in his characters, many of them upwardly mobile, bearing the “burden” of being privileged financially, but lacking sorely in basic human empathy. He writes:

“For professionals like them, this city is a backwater, a punishment posting…Atreyi wants to leave this city and move to one of the many metropolises where the clichéd economic boom of this country is more visible.”

What lies beneath

Could Atreyi be thinking of Gurgaon, the “financial hub” where fat salaries rule but power and water supply continue to play hooky? A dark symbol of uneven progression?

Manish Dubey sets his novel A Murder in Gurgaon at the heart of this suburb of stark contrasts. The young son of an ex-cop is found murdered in a high-rise apartment. He was a small-town boy who seemed to have lived the flashy life in boomtown Gurgaon, where the skyline, as it scarily scales new heights of violence, informs the narrative. Dubey, too, observes the changing world order keenly, while capturing the chao and the growing, unsettling sense of alienation.

“The Platinum Heights complex was off the road, surrounded by more than a dozen construction sites and little else. The nearest populated complex was a kilometer away…their specific destination was the only complete block in the complex; it’s entrance lobby a mess, lift untidy but functional. Clotheslines and air conditioners outside, nameplates in the lobby suggested that only about six or seven of the forty-odd flats in the block were occupied…Dirty white flags carrying the builder’s logo fluttered sadly in surrender to market or court diktats. Only those could halt real estate activity so effectively in Gurgaon.”

Praveen Swami’s Srinagar-based novella The Little Book of Poisons mines terrorism, encounter killings, and the mafia, while stripping the Kashmiri town of its touristy gloss with a passing reference to “the giant pool of liquid poo we call the Dal”. In her second novel in the Inspector Gowda series, Chain of Custody, Anita Nair takes it a step further, drawing us in with a devastating portrait of Bangalore while making sharp social commentary about important contemporary issues. This isn’t the shiny, cool, cosmopolitan Bangalore we have often been charmed by, but Bengaluru, stripped off its cool swag.

“The sleepy city of Bangalore he (Gowda) had grown in had transformed into a vibrant city luring people with its cool weather, green avenues, its affordable real estate, its pubs and bands. But that Bangalore too had been replaced by a hard ruthless urbanity that allowed tress to be felled with the same heartless ease as lives dispensed with…Towers of Babel were rising everywhere and men came from all parts of the country to build these edifices that paid homage to human greed.”

Nair’s story, a well-plotted tale of child sexual abuse and trafficking, wouldn’t be what it is without the fabric of contemporary Bangalore, the city that enables such depravity to thrive in its sea of colonies and ease of anonymity in a rapidly growing population.

“…this was not Mumbai with its Kamathipura or Kolkata with its Sonagachi or even Pune with its Budhwar Peth or Varanasi with its Shivdaspur. In Bangalore, brothels were everywhere and it wasn’t easy to trace them…Once Bangalore had been a transit point, but now it was the destination.”

There have been books on Indian cities and their dark avatars in anthologies like Delhi Noir or Mumbai Noir, and in other city novels. But the recent crop of crime thrillers establishes a newsy, urgent angle. As expected, the unravelling of this modern Indian megalopolis through the lens of contemporary crime is as fascinating as it is disturbing. It is a keen study of its rise and fall, creaking under the weight of human darkness.

With so much fodder at our disposal, it’s no wonder bookshelves are filling up rapidly with an overwhelming number of crime novels, new authors rubbing shoulders with many veteran writers marking their debuts in this genre. For a reader, though, it’s a tricky balance to strike. She’s richer by another gripping page-turner, but worn out by the reminder that many of these stories feel uncomfortably close for comfort.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.