Old wounds, new stories: Inequality in Indian cities makes for good crime fiction plots

Crime fiction makes its home within the fault lines of a city. Crime, horror and love stories are supposed to be popular everywhere. Things are a bit tricky in India as crime arises out of poverty here.

Written by Ankush Saikia | Updated: July 17, 2018 4:51:49 pm
Nizamuddin eateries, accidental crime stories, crime, accident, Laitumkhrah bazaar, Shillong, Paul Schrader, indian express, indian express news What seems to work in India are true-crime stories. (Source: Ankush Saikia)

I’ve been something of an accidental crime novelist. I had no special interest in crime, and nor did I read much crime fiction. At the most, I suppose I had an interest in the darker side of the human condition, in people and situations not considered “normal”.

Having lived in Delhi for more than a decade, I visited most parts of it (those were pre-Metro days) by bus, and then on my motorcycle: the factories and office complexes in Jamna paar, the sabzi mandi, Azadpur and Majnu ka Tila in north Delhi. There was south Delhi, of course — from its five-star hotels, multiplexes and Def Col market to rundown Amar Colony and grimy Nizamuddin eateries. I saw Gurgaon and Greater Noida rise up before my eyes almost out of nowhere.

Right from the start, I realised there was great material here, especially for something dark and twisted, given the undercurrent of violence in the city (something missing in, say, Mumbai or Bengaluru). I later realised it would have arisen out of the traumas of Partition (and heightened by the extreme weather).

It would have been something I picked up without being aware of it, especially in Indra Vihar, a neighbourhood near Delhi University’s North Campus where I stayed with friends, and where the landlords were all Punjabi refugees. You could still see some of the old men and women, the original Partition refugees, mostly senile, on charpoys outside. In their descendants, there was a readiness to quarrel and fight, a sort of suppressed panic.

There was also the contrast in social standing — which Indian city doesn’t have it? — but in Delhi it was different, the migrants one saw living on the streets juxtaposed with people who ran the affairs of the country: how strange for it to be taken for granted.

But I couldn’t make it all come alive on the page (though I did publish a slim novel, set in Delhi and the Northeast). The years went by. Then I came back to Shillong. Out of boredom I started writing a novella set here, with the standard noir tropes: a mystery girl, money, guns. A newspaper editor I knew said he would serialise it, but he quit his job before I finished the 70-page novella, so, instead, I sent it to Penguin India, where the editor persuaded me to expand it into a novel (The Girl From Nongrim Hills, 2013).

When I sat down to expand the novella, I first wrote down “locations” in Shillong I wanted to use. Garages fenced off with tin sheets, the crowded Laitumkhrah bazaar in the evenings, the mansion of a coal-trader MLA, a local football match in Polo Ground, government offices with tattered files in cupboards and lime marks (from the kwai people chew) on the walls, jadoh stalls run by women, evangelist congregations, even the run-down bars where impoverished boys sell religious bookmarks, and also houses and shops of older non-tribal residents — all that went into constructing the Shillong of the novel.

I didn’t have to do any research for this; all those aspects of the city were within me, so to speak. And in writing about such a noir setting, I discovered that I was creating a truer picture of the city than what is described in the usual tourist pieces.

Even before Nongrim Hills came out, I was writing Dead Meat, about a depressive, semi-alcoholic and divorced detective, being dragged down by the grime and corruption of the capital city. I wanted my detective to be an outsider, but Delhi is a city of outsiders, so I came back to the Northeast for the source of his alienation. A child of a mixed marriage, Arjun grows up in small towns across the Northeast. He is frequently picked on in school because of his name. Later, he is unable to adjust to the outside world (and Delhi) because of where he comes from. In the Northeast, however, he is an insider destined to remain an outsider.

I sent the first 100 pages to my editor at Penguin, and she said that the atmosphere was great, but why were people telling the detective everything? So that led to an intensive course in detective fiction, where I learnt what most readers/reviewers seem to forget: in the classic crime novel, the success of the author is determined by one thing alone: does the book leave you guessing about the culprit, the solution? The rest is just atmosphere.

It was much later, while reading an essay on film noir by Paul Schrader (who wrote the Taxi Driver screenplay), that something struck me: Schrader says the noir hero “dreads to look ahead, but instead tries to survive by the day, and if unsuccessful at that, retreats to the past.” Noir as nostalgia: who would have thought so? In addition to learning about those two cities (by writing about them), I ended up learning about character as well. The guitar-playing protagonist of Nongrim Hills and the cynical detective in Dead Meat — there is a link between their memories of a simpler past and my own reminiscences.

Crime, horror and love stories are supposed to be popular everywhere. Things are a bit tricky in India. Most crime here arises out of poverty, the causes of which go deep, and it is difficult to create entertainment out of that. Then, there is the higher cachet of foreign crime novels (the translated ones which do well in English are, interestingly, those which have first done well in their own countries: Sweden, Japan, even China). What seems to work in India are true-crime stories.

My own theory is that crime novels are popular in societies that are safe and ordered, like the Nordic countries, or the UK, where reading about things going wrong can be entertaining, whereas in India, with our daily lives so full of frustration and inequality, most people look for entertainment that is pleasant, like a love story. But the inequality of Indian cities is also why they are such good settings for crime fiction.

Ankush Saikia is the author of the crime novel More Bodies Will Fall.

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