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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.