The Capital comes alive with its histories, binaries and everything in between in two new novels
Among Indian cities, Delhi is quite unique in the manner it has resurrected itself again and again. Its strategic location, at the pinnacle of the great Indian plains, must be considered the primary reason why marauding invaders chose to raze the existing city to the ground and then rebuild it as their own capital, not once or twice, but several times, shifting its centre by perhaps a couple of miles to the north or south. Many centuries later, present-day New Delhi continues to exert as magnetic a pull, drawing migrants of all hues from across hubs and hinterlands; some will find their fortunes here, twinning their fates with the rise and fall of its politics, industry, media, art and education. Others will retire hurt, licking the wounds inflicted by the inherent toxicity of the city, where everyone is on the make.
This Delhi of histories, binaries and everything in between is the backdrop for two very different books this season. As assured in their craft as both are, neither makes any bones about its genre loyalties, but one, more than the other, triumphs the inherent limitations of pigeon-holes, creating a haunting, mystical world that leaves one hungry for more. Avtar Singh’s Necropolis is an ode to ancient, medieval and Old Delhi, a romantic ballad that cuts across time, if not place, and melds features of classic detective fiction with those of the hard-boiled and roman noir in a style that is exquisitely the author’s.
While the stories can be treated as straightforward crime fiction—and, really, who is chopping off fingers of Delhi’s men, in a macabre interpretation of digital crime?—such a reading would be an injustice to the metaphysical underpinnings of Singh’s work. For his concern is not just the seemingly random acts of violence that so peculiarly characterize Delhi, but a much larger historical context that blends myth with urban legend, vampires with cults, party people with other creatures of the night. The particular incidents of crime are actually less important than the story they tell collectively, of a city that has tried perpetually to balance the old and the new, which has been ransacked and reinvented, but has always succumbed to the lures of power and ambition.
For such a Delhi, an overblown private eye—such as Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri—simply wouldn’t do. Instead, Singh blesses the city with the investigator it deserves, DCP Sajan Dayal, the policeman with a poet’s soul and a politician’s mind, “a connoisseur of webs and connections". Supporting him in the Crime Branch are long-time subordinate Kapoor and new IPS recruit Smita Dhingra. Walking through the bustle of Mehrauli, Smita feels “as she had before, the presence of that invisible ring that surrounded men such as Kapoor and the DCP… The bear in front, thought Smita, and the wolf behind, sensing the DCP’s quietly feral saunter a step or so astern…. Perhaps, thought Smita, we are a breed apart. The thought chilled her young heart, as much because she’d articulated the ‘we’ in her own mind."
The protagonist of the novel is the Ash of the title, Ashwin to give him his full name who, in the first chapter, is yet another rich Delhi boy being packed off for his college degree in US. But at the same party is Mallika, a singer with the band hired for the evening. She is one of the “outsiders" that Necropolis profiles so empathetically, a girl from Jaipur who is in the Capital for her graduation at Azad College. Over a misdirected conversation about writer Junot Diaz and poet Rumi, Ashwin falls in love and, yes, abandons his plans for Columbia, rescues his admission letter to Azad College and changes the course of his life.
Ashwin’s circle will grow to include Chetan and Aziz, whom he knows from school and family connections (so Delhi), and Lallan, the master’s student from Bihar, who shares his fascination for Mallika. Matters will come to a head yet again at another party where all five are present. The rave and its aftermath is the strongest section of the novel, when Jain strips away the peripherals to focus on the headspaces of Ashwin and Lallan, so different from each other and, yet, so alike in ways they themselves do not recognize. Notwithstanding some initial incoherence in Lallan’s characterization—there are no such missteps with Ashwin—these two protagonists carry through the novel, despite its somewhat predictable trajectory. Mallika remains sketchy, perhaps deliberately so, but, of the rest of the cast, Rani, Ashwin’s sister Meera’s bestie, probably deserves a book of her own.
Fire Under Ash is not perfect, but holds enough promise for the reading public to keep an eye out for Jain’s next. Necropolis, on the other hand, needs to be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares for crime/noir/Indian fiction in English.