Through the Delhi-scope
Publisher : Ankush Saikia
Publisher : Penguin, Rs399
The novel is an exploration of Delhi and the psychology of its everyday life. It is a twisted kind of a dilli darshan for the Delhite as well as the outsider, writes Sanya Dang
The first impact Ankush Saikia’s Dead Meat makes is through its cover — and the blurb. Even though the famous saying goes — “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, this cover tells me I am going to really enjoy it, despite my apprehension of and disinterest in thrillers.
The ‘Tandoor’ reference brings back horrifying memories of newspaper reports graphically describing how a murder took place, 20 years ago, which sent shockwaves throughout the city. The author draws upon this case and uses a few details to make his story more ‘real’. On July 2, 1995, Sushil Sharma murdered his wife Naina Sahni, chopped her body in pieces and stuffed it into a tandoor at the Bagiya restaurant (which he owned) in Ashok Yatri Niwas, Delhi. Two police constables exposed this murder when they saw smoke rising from the open air restaurant, suspecting a fire. Sharma managed to flee but the manager was arrested.
The prologue introduces us to the protagonist, the detective’s childhood in northeast India, which helps us understand his outlook towards life and hatred of people who discriminate on the basis of mixed parentage, religion, class etc. Born in Tezpur, Assam, in 1975, Saikia grew up in different places — Madison Wisconsin, Assam and Shillong, before Delhi became his home for more than 10 years. He has also been a journalist and a senior editor at Dorling Kindersely and Dead Meat is his third Novel.
In the novel, Arjun is the detective with quintessential mannerisms — cigarette smoking and nonchalance being the highlights. Half Punjabi and half Nepali, he is a figure torn between living in Delhi and dreaming of the hills. He has keen observation and remarkable effect on people. He is straightforward and bold, even when he goes to meet the suspects, he hardly ever uses a different name to introduces himself. He is the ‘outsider’ everywhere due to his lonesome disposition and uncontrollable temper. He loves to cook and hates the typical Punjabi patriarchal mindset. He does not lose his cool even when faced with dangerous situations
The similarities between the author and the protagonist, Arjun Arora are hard to miss — Arora is in a way mouthpiece of the author. Arora’s hatred for ‘Delhisms’ and typical Delhites borders on the cynical as does his general attitude to life in this urban chaos. He hates the ‘Sahib’ like behaviour of Delhites, their way of ordering people around and their disdain for people working under them. Quintessentially, Delhi is a city where the contrast between the life of penury and life of privilege is very apparent. Delhi as a character in the story is hard to miss — it is the most significant one in a novel where in every few pages, we meet a new character.
Delhi probably gave the author/protagonist a culture shock when he made it his home, his relationship with the city is based on intense hatred. He calls it a ‘hellish city’, what with its extreme temperatures, crazy traffic, exodus of migrants, politics and corruption. Delhi for him is a ‘stained city’ and roots his basic violent nature in the many invasions and bloodbaths it has seen over the centuries and the trauma of partition. He also continuously reminds us of the big political-corporate-sports-mafia nexus of the city where “might was always right”.
An arbitrary exercise of power is ingrained in every and life for the lower classes is nightmarish while the middle classes struggle greatly for bare survival. The whole story is woven around the many refugee colonies, posh farm houses, villages, flyovers, landmarks, sights, sounds and smells that constitute Delhi. It is a twisted kind of ‘Dilli Darshan’, both for the Delhite and the outsider. The author has dedicated this novel to Rahul, his brother — ‘another explorer of Delhi’.
The navigation of roads through traffic has been described so perfectly that we get a feeling of being a passenger in Arjun’s car — the readers will feel as if they are journeying with the detective. The protagonist sketches out the entire map of Delhi for us in his search for the murderer. This case takes Arora all over Delhi looking for answers — from the brothels in GB road to the posh bungalows of South Delhi, from people living below poverty line to the movers and shakers, the high and mighty of the capital city.
Even though the case starts innocently enough, it soon becomes evident that our ‘hero’ is treading dangerous territory. As the plot unravels and the story moves forward, Arjun’s past life in the army is revealed bit by bit — his days at Delhi University, his marriage to Sonali, birth of his daughter, his father’s accident, his dark days in the Middle-East. His solitary meditations on life, over a glass of neat whiskey and some homemade comfort food, are necessary to balance the heady pace of the narrative.
A few lines in the novel are so hard hitting that they stay with you — especially when he says — “Here in the chaos that was India, justice and fairness were not guaranteed”. Despite there being several characters, each and everyone is well etched out, especially the suspects. Prose is simple and goes perfectly with pace of the novel. The novel draws you in from the very first page and is an engaging read.
The plot has its predictable and startling twists and turns and the usual trails of suspects. Momentum is built slowly and steadily, with things becoming more dangerous, with every new development and chapter. It is a page turner in every sense, — ‘unputdownable’ for want of a less clichéd word. The anticlimax at the end is what throws you off — the mastermind is somebody whom nobody could have expected this from.
At the end of the novel, you realise what the author really means through his cynicism of Delhi and Delhites. The city is used as a motif to describe a maze or a labyrinth like situation with its array of structures, roads, monuments and flyovers that curve this way and that. It reminds one of a maze that traps you within its precincts, a trap very hard to get out of — it again points out to “survival of the fittest”. The author functions as a sociologist — anthropologist who has uncovered the real character of the city of Delhi, going beyond the glitzy façade of five star hotels and malls to the harsh reality that lies beneath.
The ending of the novel is somber and grim, hinting at corruption at the highest level of the pyramid. With veiled references to Dawood Ibrahim and Co. as the mastermind of the many illegal businesses operating in India — from betting on cricket to drug distribution. This last bit reminded of a similar ending in Allan Folsom’s dark thriller — The Day after Tomorrow (which had veiled references to Hitler). Final verdict would be to definitely go read this book — even if you have to forgo tandoori dishes for a while!
The reviewer is an MPhil Research Scholar in Comparative Indian Literature at the University of Delhi
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