Popular crime fiction in India
Ankush Saikia’s Remember Death is a sequel to his earlier novel, Dead Meat that had released last year. Protagonist Arjun Arora has his share of nightmares this time in Mumbai as he investigates a mystery that starts 50 years before he gets involved in it. As he uncovers lethal secrets that Delhi’s elite had buried deep in the inner recesses of their soul, his own life begins to turn topsy-turvy.
This novel, quite thicker than its prequel, starts with a flashback from the 1960s. At the same time, it also displays markers of oft-repeated formulae for Indian thrillers and even Hindi thriller films: A deserted hill station; a cold, wet night in Shimla; a woman in a sari at a sanatorium; after which the narrative moves 50 years later in 2012. One cannot help but wonder if these elements in thrillers will ever stop being indispensable.
Saikia explains, “The story soon turns toward a missing Bollywood actress from the 1960s, and this plays a major role in the book from that point onward. So the beginning was done keeping this in mind, with a scene that could have come from a 1960s Hindi film... the hospital, the rain, the mystery woman.” However, that is not the only repeated nuance otherwise found in detective fiction.
Arjun Arora, in a much familiar mode, is a detective who is also battling his personal demons as well as is feeling strong affection towards the woman who is extremely crucial to his case. As the plot unfolds, the twists begin to affect his personal life as well. Was Saikia not worried of appearing to be conformist towards the usual modus operandi in crime novels? He replies, “I think that the fact that it’s a regular pattern, as you put it, shows how effective it can be. And technically speaking, it’s easier to describe the life of a loner as opposed to say someone living with family members, because of the character’s isolation. This in turn merges with the harshness of a city like Delhi. And of course, the mystery woman might or might not be his salvation. While the above elements might seem clichéd, the fact is the material in the book — Indian cities, Indian characters, a protagonist who grew up in the North East — is something which hasn’t been written about too much in Indian crime fiction.”
In both of the novels, Arjun Arora’s quest for the truth had turned the cities in both novels, Delhi and Mumbai, operate like characters. The social landscape of the metropolises serve as definitive motifs as their pavements, monuments and flyovers underscore the hollow and sordid ghosts of the past that lay buried there. “Dead Meat started off as a desire to write a very dark book set in Delhi that took in the varied aspects of the city: High to low, the corrupt to the innocent. The detective came in later, when I realised he would be someone who had easy access — by virtue of his job — to various places and levels of society in the city”, Saikia recalls.
Remember Death is racy, eventful and twisted. It manages to elucidate the writer’s presence of mind and dexterity in crafting his thriller. Before this, Saikia has also written four other books, including The Girl From Nongrim Hills, which was yet another thriller that was also described as “a Shillong novel”. He says it took him about a year to write Remember Death. In the meantime, he was doing some journalism stories from the North-East, and the editing and the publishing of the book took about a year more.
Writing an effective and intelligent crime novel, at the same time, commands a lot of personal insight, one may argue. So about how writing this novel made him change personally, Saikia says, “I think I’ve always had an interest in the darker and shadier side of life, so it was only natural in a way for me to write about that, though I do seem to have arrived at crime and detective fiction sort of accidently. As I’ve mentioned, the detective made his appearance in Dead Meat, in my mind, after I had started the book. I don’t think it has made any personal changes in me; but writing books is a tough and lonely job, so that makes it frustrating sometimes.”
Surprisingly, he also says that he has not been an avid reader of the genre and lists RK Narayan and Aman Sethi’s journalism as the kind of writings he likes to follow. He adds, “My old favourites include Graham Greene and Frederick Forsyth.”
Crime writing in India is still an under-explored genre. It’s riveting in a warped sense that a country like India with all its macabre mundane, has failed to produce a hotbed for crime fiction. However, the genre seems to be finding its pulse gradually in the country, more so with the young urban populace. As Saikia believes, “Both the crime and thriller genres in India are slowly growing, with a few home-grown writers like Anita Nair and Ravi Subramaniam and Juggi Bhasin emerging. I think this can only pick up in the coming years.”
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