[This is the longer version of my review of Delhi Noir, which was published in an edited form by Deccan Herald a couple of weeks back.]
Darkness in Delhi
The title’s a bit of a shocker. Noir, set in Delhi? As in, fedora-and-overcoat-clad detectives looking for Maltese falcons, in Delhi? But then you think a bit, and the idea sounds appealing. Noir, after all, isn’t only private eyes and dames packing lead. At its core, it’s about the blackness of human nature, about the corruption that even the most innocent are capable of. And Delhi, with its layers of history and its confluence of cultures, would be the perfect showcase for this form of fiction.
Yet the introductory note to the book, by Hirsh Sawhney, puts you off. He wonders: “Why explains the lack of noir set in Delhi?”, and goes on to postulate that it’s because delhiites are too scared or hypocritic to want to read about the unpalatable parts of Delhi life. Here’s a better answer to the question: Maybe you’re looking in the wrong places. Fiction written in English, and the coverage of the English press, are thin and recently-created layers over the seething broth of Delhi culture. Look at Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi publishing to see the rest of the story. To take an easy example: Surender Mohan Pathak, the bestselling Hindi pulp writer, has a series of novels starring the opportunistic private detective Sudhir Kohli, the self-professed “Dilli ka kameena” (Delhi scoundrel). Or, look through the issues of the long-running pulp magazine Manohar Kahaniyan, which features true crime and short stories. In Delhi Noir, there’s exactly one story originally written in Hindi, by Uday Prakash – why not source more such?
As it stands, however, Delhi Noir is a pretty good anthology. There are 14 new stories by different writers, ranging from bestselling veterans to newbies just starting out. Its part of a series by New York-based small press Akashic Books, who have previously published noir anthologies set in San Francisco, Paris, London, and a dozen other cities. This is the first time they’re publishing an India-based collection. The series is licensed by Harper Collins in India.
The stories are divided into three thematic sections: the police force, the young generation, and the immigrant population. The themes are just starting points for the stories, and they take off in entirely different directions, providing a varied experience of the city. Everyone’s favourite story is likely to be different here – I had a soft spot for Uday Prakash’s tale of a sweeper who finds a hidden store of cash, and for Meera Nair’s story set in the underworld of the Inter State Bus Terminal. The one held up as a representative of the book in several reviews, the I. Allan Sealy story, didn’t work for me though – perhaps because of the excellent language. Somehow, the idea of a rickshaw wala talking about “listening to Sufi fat-boy tapes” and explaining that “his spirit clad me, sliding over me like a lover’s hand” didn’t seem convincing. And the first story by Omair Ahmed, about a private detective and the ’84 riots, seems to be trying too hard to fit in “Noir” and “Delhi” into the flow. But all the stories are competent enough, read well, and have the required dose of darkness.
Special mention must be made of Manjula Padmanabhan’s story, ‘Cull’, set in a future Delhi. The story really works as a metaphor for Delhi, no, India’s spirit of making the best of the situation and coming out on top by whatever means.
Corruption, being a large part of the common man’s experience with most established institutions in India, plays a part in several stories. This is especially true of all the police characters, not a single one of which are completely honest and idealistic.
One question to think about is how closely the stories need to be set in Delhi. Noir as a genre is a fairly universal, as opposed to say Partition stories, which could be set only in India, and only in a specific time period. So several of these plots could be set in different parts of the world, with local characters, and work just as well. But then, if the stories had been entirely focused on Delhi quirks and events, the appeal to the audience would have gone down. The book makes a sensible balance between the two extremes in this case.
It would be interesting to have a counterpart to this book, composed entirely of stories written by Hindi or Punjabi writers. Considering that a lot of the inner workings of the city happen in one of those languages, it would probably have a more insider’s look at the city. Most of the stories in Delhi Noir revolve around a certain level of society – press reporters, college students, private detectives, advertising executives – and we need more stories from below the glass ceiling of English – street urchins, immigrants, shopkeepers, clerks.
While we’re thinking of counterparts, how about a set of stories set in older Delhis, before the liberalization age that Sawhney refers to in the introduction? The focus of this book is squarely on current Delhi, and that’s not a bad focus to have either, but one wonders about what the seedy side of Delhi was like, say, twenty or thirty years ago.
Overall, this is an interesting anthology . It exposes the reader to a varied selection of stories, leaves him wanting more, and – as in the foregoing paragraphs – thinking about all the directions the genre can go in the Indian context. I’m looking forward to a couple more Delhi volumes, atleast one Mumbai Noir volume, and a small-town India volume – Jhumri Talaiya Noir, maybe?