Zac O’Yeah on a grand old European tradition, rare up to now in Indian English-language fiction
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Some nights in Delhi, flash crowds of youths materialize —on Metro station platforms, at empty bus depots, in Nehru Place after closing hours—to battle out the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. Are they just role-playing or is there something more to it than meets the eye?
The phenomenon is a headache for DCP Dayal of the Crime Branch. Especially after one masked youngster starts chopping off his victims’ fingers, sometimes even chewing on their throats to leave telltale vampire marks. There are Internet rumours of even worse things happening.
At the centre of the mystery is an aristocratic woman named Razia, who lives in an old haveli and who may be as old as the city itself. Judging from her intimate knowledge of past events, she must have clocked in some 800-plus years. However, she’s far from your average geriatric. This alluring, eternally young lady can be seen clubbing at the hottest nightspots, her movements and garments perpetual fodder for Page 3 gossip columns. Yet, she’s never captured in photographs. DCP Dayal, fond of Urdu poetry and nostalgic about Delhi, can’t help falling in love with Razia.
This is the story at the core of Necropolis, a novel by Avtar Singh, former editor of TimeOut Delhi and official nightlife expert of Delhi. I wondered if I’d spotted a trend when I opened the next book in my review pile, Cult Of Chaos, by Mint contributor Shweta Taneja, in which the protagonist, Tantrist and ghost-buster Anantya, inhabits an ancient 24-room haveli in Old Delhi where she’s set up her nest of sorcery along with a mascot cat, a snake god and an Urdu-blabbering ghost.
Compared to the moody Gothic ambience of Necropolis, which in lyrical prose bemoans the demise of the Delhi of yore while it ponders New Delhi’s alienating newness, Cult Of Chaos is a chick-lit take on the horrors of the megacity. Be warned, though. This is not soft-focus romance. In between blind-dating, there’s plenty of pulpy gore as Anantya fights rakshasas (demons) that fart foul-smelling substances in posh Connaught Place restaurants.
Supernatural thrills, horror tropes and enigmatic women in old havelis. Can this be a coincidence? Hardly, I thought, and sought out the authors, who were surprised when I labelled their books horror.
“There’s actually not much real horror in there when you get to the end of the book. The vampires and werewolves find their resolution in the normal world,” says Singh, who claims not to have read Gothic horror except for usual suspects like Frankenstein and Dracula. But then he does agree I have a point: “If there is an element of that, it’s because I’m interested in atmosphere, which, to me, is a key element of the Gothic, if anything at all. And so my Delhi is important. But also the feeling of dread, sometimes nebulous, at others overpowering: This is the narrative of Delhi right now.”
So why has horror, especially Gothic horror, which is a grand old European tradition, been so rare up to now in Indian English-language fiction? “The tropes of European horror in India easily become kitsch. That’s what happened with the horror movies of the Ramsay Brothers,” Singh says, referring to the seven producer-director brothers who ruled Hindi horror in the 1970s and 1980s. He hastens to add: “But there’s a new sort of Gothic sensibility out there now. And now that you mention it, Gothic is just as good a definition of what I tried to do in my book. I like the overblown meatiness of Gothic itself. It lends itself to a city like Delhi, which is nothing if not larger than life.”
Taneja is more pleasantly surprised at being labelled a horror writer. “Now that you mention it, yes, isn’t it true? I wonder why more authors haven’t written horror, for there is definitely a market out there,” says Taneja, who grew up in Delhi and as a woman had to be constantly on the alert. The Tantrist hero, then, is her way of revisiting that city of dread.
Personally, she’s a fan of more psychological thriller writers like Stephen King. Regarding her novel, Taneja states: “What I wanted to do was explore the hidden side of Indian society, the things that lie beneath the veneer of the middle class, the arrogance, the thirst for power…which is perhaps why I chose an occult detective. Tantrism has always lived on the edges of the society, shunned, considered evil or disgusting or feared like monsters. Tantrism is quite fascinating for us, sort of like serial killers are for the West.”
And now that I think of it, this might well be a subgenre emerging, with writers like Singh and Taneja measuring the horror quotient of the modern metropolis.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru.