Akashic Books (New York) publishes the grim Delhi Noir, new stories by: Irwin Allan Sealy, Omair Ahmad, Radhika Jha, Ruchir Joshi, Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, Meera Nair, Siddharth Chowdhury, Mohan Sikka, Palash Krishna Mehrotra, Hartosh Singh Bal, Hirsh Sawhney, Tabish Khair, Uday Prakash, Manjula Padmanabhan. All, as far as I can see, written in English except one, which is translated from Hindi.
“Delhi Noir’s fifteen original stories are written by the best Indian writers alive today – the ones you haven’t yet heard of but should have. They are veteran authors who have appeared on the Booker Prize short list and budding geniuses who your grandchildren will read about in English class. Delhi Noir is a world of sex in parks, male prostitution, and vigilante rickshaw drivers. It is one plagued by religious riots, soulless corporate dons, and murderous servants. This is India uncut, the one you’re missing out on because mainstream publishing houses and glossy magazines can’t stomach it.”
The gang rape makes it topical. (What is this particular publisher unable to get right when it does it as an ebook? Every two or three pages, a word has a nonsensical hyphen in the middle.)
It is edited by Hirsh Sawhney, who writes the Introduction, which is dated May 2009. He came back in 2005 from New York to a Delhi where middle-class families who had once lived frugally were comparing plasma television prices. Nowadays those televisions are rigged up in slums. He doesn’t define his own family as middle-class, though their address in the 1950s, Connaught Place, perhaps suggests it. They had one bedroom, but they were refugees from the Punjab. I can remember when the English middle class was, by modern standards, poor. It was all it could do to keep a bottle of sherry in the larder.
“International brands like the Wall Street Journal and Chanel were setting up shop. The city’s cruddy public transportation system was being revolutionized by an ultramodern metro. [...] The educated elite [...] bragged about the new malls and cinemas going up in Gurgaon.”
Reforms began under Manmohan Singh in 1991 when he was Finance Minister. He began to dismantle Nehruite socialism. This new India, and new Delhi, does not like to talk about its noir side.
“Every morning, papers abound with alarming stories: accounts of the unmitigated corruption and contract killing that make this city of more than fifteen million tick; indications of increasing divisions between rich and poor that lead servants to murder masters and foment Maoist movements in the country’s hinterland; synopses of so many rapes and sexual assaults that readers become numb to them. Yet the everyday depravity and anguish of Delhi life remains confined to news copy. Despite notable exceptions like Namita Gokhale and Arvind [sic] Adiga, authors of literature – particularly those who write in English – usually choose to ignore the capital’s stains.” Perhaps no more. What must the rape statistics be telling us about violence hidden in the home?
A servant murders his once-loved master in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. I enjoyed that book. Some thought it vastly overrated. It certainly had flaws.
“It’s only natural that Delhi’s book-buying-and-publishing citizens would avoid such writing. Any insight into their hometown’s ugly entrails would threaten their guilt-free gilded existence and the bubble of nationalistic euphoria in which their lives are contained. They are too dependent on the power structures and social systems intrinsic to the city – embassies, government offices, and corporations; rural poverty and illegal immigration – to risk looking critically at these things.
“[...] Delhi Noir’s contributors are diverse: They are Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Punjabis, Biharis, Bengalis, and Keralites; men and women; gay and straight. Many reside in the capital, but others have addresses in Uttarakhand or the U.S. Some have published critically acclaimed books, and a few are still working on their first manuscripts. What they have in common is the inclination to write delectable literature that doesn’t shy away from the city’s uncomfortable underside.”
The stories, as with others in the Noir series, are identified in the table of contents with areas of the city: Ashram, Bhalswa, Defence Colony, Delhi Ridge, Delhi University (North Campus), Green Park, Gyan Kunj, Inter-State Bus Terminal, Jantar Mantar, Lodhi Gardens, Nizamuddin West, Paharganj, RK Puram, Rohini.
I discovered Nizamuddin in 2010. Email me if you want the address of an upmarket bed and breakfast there. It’s a Muslim area, as the name suggests. Part of it is pleasant and expensive, with gates that are lifted before cars can drive in. Still, not repulsive, or a planned development, or too obviously part of the great middle-class secession into gated communities (to quote, or paraphrase, Arundhati Roy), and seductive and neighbourly in the early evening. This is Nizamuddin East. Nizamuddin West, across Mathura Road, is rougher. Part of it feels medieval. Go there if you want to eat without alcohol at Karim’s.
“Irwin Allan Sealy’s tale about a vigilante autorickshaw driver who avenges sexual assault on the Ridge is defined by the wry, rhythmic prose that garnered him a place on the Booker Prize shortlist in 1998.” Allan is an Anglo-Indian who lives in Dehra Dun. At the top of the valley, in Mussoorie, resides an Anglo-Indian who must be the least noir writer in the subcontinent, Ruskin Bond.
I have read two stories in Delhi Noir: Mohan Sikka’s The Railway Aunty (Paharganj) and Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s Fit of Rage (Defence Colony). They aren’t masterpieces, but they do tempt me to sample more of the book. The Railway Aunty is about a young man who becomes a gigolo in a middle-class prostitution ring. Fit of Rage is about a servant’s murder of his master, or rather mistress.
I was in New Delhi in early summer 1999. The person who was looking after me, R_, from the Confederation of Indian Industry, invited me to a reception they were holding at the Taj Palace hotel (Diplomatic Enclave). We arrived there after some meetings an hour and a bit before it was due to start. R_ said she would go home to get ready. We would see each other later.
She never returned. I didn’t think much of it, but it was puzzling. I was staying not at the Taj but at the more modest and delectable (in those days) Claridge’s (“The Claridges”), a two-storey building in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone. You wouldn’t think, in the LBZ, that Delhi was a violent city. (Yet it’s a cliché in small talk that Delhiites are not the nicest people in India.)
In the morning, The Times of India was brought into my room with my breakfast. High on the front page, a column was headed: “Mother of CII Director Murdered in South Delhi.” I could hardly believe that the daughter was the person I had been with the evening before.
“NEW DELHI, April 28 (PTI) — The 63-year-old mother of a top executive of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was today found strangled to death at her flat in a South Delhi locality.
“H[_] K[_] N[_]’s body was discovered by her daughter R[_] N[_], who is Director (International) at CII, around 6.30 p.m. when she returned to her East of Kailash home, the police said.
“The house was bolted from outside and the victim’s body was lying in a pool of blood in an inside room of the flat with hands and legs tied with a rope and a sari tied around her neck, the police said, adding that there were strangulation marks on her body.
“The victim, a widow, was alone in the house when the incident occurred.
“The house was completely ransacked and it could not be immediately ascertained whether any valuables were missing as the victim’s family was under shock, the police said.
“Senior police officials and forensic experts examined the area and lifted some fingerprints as the body was sent for a post-mortem examination.
“The police suspects the absconding servant, a Nepali employed just four days back, in the murder and has detained for questioning a maid who had brought him to the house.”
I have the original newspaper somewhere. That’s from The Tribune and is on the web. R_ was unmarried and lived with her mother. I have blanked out their names. One report said that the servant had run into the main street and had been seen catching a bus.
South Delhi is prosperous. I assumed it was a robbery, and I remember wondering why it was necessary to kill an old woman for the sake of a few valuables.
Mehrotra asks that question in Fit of Rage:
“Servants murdered their masters all the time in Delhi. Every other week the newspapers carried stories of elderly couples being drugged and clobbered to death. I often wondered: If the motive was robbery, why kill? Why not steal and scoot? Anyway, this seemed to be how they did it in Delhi.”
I called R_ that day at home. “Now you know India,” she said to me bitterly. Had she gone back the night before, with so little time to spare, because she was afraid of something?
Are criminals sometimes referred to as “Nepalis” before anybody has checked? In The Railway Aunty, we have:
“‘You’re not to open the door, Bibiji,’ she said sharply to the old woman. ‘What if some Nepali slashes our throats?’”
Akashic started the Noir series in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. They have done several dozen cities since, not all in the US, but nothing on East Asia. No Tokyo Noir, no Shanghai Noir, no Hong Kong Noir, no Bangkok Noir. Macau might not have enough writers, but is certainly noir enough. But Manila, Seoul and Singapore are scheduled. Yes, Singapore. One had been told that crime was forbidden there. They will lap that up when Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan delivers it. Lagos Noir is due, editor Chris Abani. So is Baghdad, editor Samuel Shimon. Tokyo is a strange omission.
There is a Venice Noir. Venice, Italy, but can a city that has no nightlife be noir? Of course there is a Moscow Noir, and a St Petersburg. Paris Noir contains no Simenon, since most volumes allow stories only by living writers (a few, subtitled The Classics, have older ones), and how can a city be noir when Madame Maigret is preparing foie de veau à la bourgeoise for the commissaire’s lunch? But some of Simenon’s eleven “hard” novels set in the US (Les frères Rico, Feux rouges) are true examples of 1950s noir.
To Delhi from Ferghana and Calcutta (old post)