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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