It now seems so obvious—a heaving, seething megapolis, its millions staring fixedly ahead at some distant point which spells survival or gain or fulfilment, their coexistence defined by varying degrees of indifference or uneasiness. Delhi, along with at least half a dozen other cities in India, is fertile ground for the noir genre of writing that is all about crime, violence, sex and intrigue, usually set in a morally ambiguous world. New Yorker Hirsh Sawhney, a Dilliwala for three years and editor of Delhi Noir, grasped the obvious a couple of years ago when he decided to add Delhi to the acclaimed series of city-based noir anthologies brought out by Akashic Books of New York.
Many contributors are veterans of the Capital’s literary set, others are upcoming newbies and a couple could be classified as outsiders. All seem new to the genre, and within the limited confines of a short story, embrace its dark and fleeting delectable possibilities with a zest that often makes for refreshing reading. Four contributors tell Lounge which locality of Delhi they chose to set their story in and why.
Omair Ahmad, Jangpura
Noir fiction is marked by a particular sense of place. Location matters. It shapes both the victim and the predator, providing them their weapons, their shields, their very identities. When writing Yesterday Man, the place that immediately came to mind is this nowhere triangle—you could call it Jangpura or Nizamuddin East, but it’s not as simple as that. Much of Nizamuddin is a posh locale of gated colonies, and Jangpura lies across the street, so this little wedge, with the ageing Rajdoot Hotel as its marker, falls somewhere betwixt and between.
Dark visions: Ahmad on the rooftop of a housing cluster behind Hotel Rajdoot in Jangpura. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
Within its alleyways you’ll find a warren of housing. Enter the door of one, climb up a little, and you can come out on a rooftop two buildings away. It’s impossible to truly tell what lies within.
It was here that I lost my underpants. I was staying there for a couple of weeks, having newly arrived in the city to study at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and waiting to get a room allotted. Having locked a bag which contained my marksheets and my dirty laundry, I came back in the evening to find it missing. And so it left its mark—an odd place of mysteries where not even my chuddies (underpants) were safe.
Hirsh Sawhney, Green Park
Green Park is certainly the Capital neighbourhood I know best. I lived there between 2005 and 2008. Like so many parts of Delhi, it is defined by an incredibly diverse and sometimes jarring array of elements—Lodi monuments; the offices of a newspaper and a magazine group; an authentic Korean restaurant; rich and poor; migrants from all parts of the country; and more recently, a significant expat population. However, compared with so many south Delhi neighbourhoods, this locale is a particularly apt setting for crime fiction because it is a place where people of all ages and classes actually walk around. People stroll up and down the market eating chaat at Evergreen; they grab a coffee, juice or dosa at one of the area’s various south Indian eateries. In fact, from Green Park you can make it to various other Delhi neighbourhoods on foot without getting mauled by a bus or Qualis: to SDA (Safdarjung Development Area) via the Rose Garden and to Hauz Khas Village or Safdarjung via Deer Park. Any urban space where people amble is a place where they inevitably interact. And it is this interaction that is essential grist for the dramatist.
Chowdhury, Sawhney, Prakash. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
Siddharth Chowdhury, Delhi University
I was in Delhi University from 1993-98 and found the tribal atmosphere of the place fascinating—students from all over north India, especially Bihar and the North-East, the clash of cultures, the vague cloud of violence and petty politics which always hung over the place. The “day scholars”, young and amoral, away from home for the first time in their impoverished rented accommodations in Punjabi refugee colonies surrounding the university, with their middle-class dreams of civil services and MBA, as India took its first tentative steps towards liberalization. I always knew one day I would write a novel about the place, about bad education. I was already making notes when I was invited to contribute to Delhi Noir. As someone was already working on a story set in Connaught Place (my first choice), I happily opted for Delhi University, North Campus. I wrote Hostel over two months in faraway Scotland when I was a writer-in-residence there. Now it forms the first chapter of my new novel Day Scholar, due out in early 2010.
Uday Prakash, Rohini
In 1992, Rohini was a suburban area in north Delhi where, with whatever little money and loan I could manage, I bought a house. Few traces of that time remain today—flyovers and shopping malls have taken over. I wrote The Walls of Delhi nine years ago when I didn’t have a job and was living on the margins interacting with the kind of people I have written about—paanwallahs, sweepers and roadside tailors. The protagonist Ramniwas is based on a real life character—a poor man who stumbled upon a lot of money. I think I have a fair idea which of our esteemed politicians that money “belonged” to…
In Sector B in Rohini, near where I live, by the busy GT Karnal road, was the big slum of Razapur populated by people best described by the Hindi word anagarik, or non-citizens—people who don’t have ration cards and lead precarious and pathetic lives. They are mostly Dalits, Muslims and low-caste immigrants from states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Orissa—you would see them shitting in the open, with the stinking smell of poverty about them. Over the years, as Rohini transformed into a metro city, the dependence of the residences on the slum dwellers for various services diminished—earlier they needed maids to do laundry but now they had washing machines. Razapur has disappeared, like it was destined to—some of its residents were relocated to Bhalswa; others disappeared with it. In its place today stands a big shopping mall.