The first thing that strikes the reader about Avtar Singh's novel, Necropolis, is its title - an instant reminder of Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis. The attempt at similitude is hard to miss. Thayil's 'polis' is the city of Bombay 'which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face' and 'is the hero or heroine of this story'. In Singh's novel, it is Delhi and its criminal underbelly that takes centre stage.'This city…,' says DCP Sajan Dayal, 'It's a giant necropolis. Entire developments raised on what used to be graveyards. Old villages gone, fields buried, their soil used for cement.' But implications of a graveyard-city go further: 'Djinns are still invoked in Firoz Shah Kotla... There are shops in Dariba that have been empty for generations because the jewellers believed they're cursed.' However, having raised the reader's expectations through the title, characteristic atmospherics and the introduction of a bewildering Angulimaal in a classic old-Delhi setting, Singh's narrative falls short of meeting them.
In the first chapter the dead body of a twenty-year-old man is discovered next to an old village in Delhi. There is a 'necklace of fingers' around his neck. Two gangs of youngsters at war - the Vampires and the Lycans (inspired by Bram Stoker and, more recently, Stephanie Meyer) - form the backdrop of the action, using social networking sites, the streets and metro stations for their battleground. Their leader - a young man in a kaffiyeh appears mysteriously at the site every time a crime is committed.
DCP Dayal is at the helm of the case, along with his junior colleague, Kapoor, and the smart young IPS officer, Smita Dhingra. Juxtaposed against Smita is the enigmatic and elusive Razia - a femme fatale figure who wields power over the DCP as much as over 'Delhi's own Angulimaal' whose nemesis she proves to be. Her home is almost a historical monument, being hundreds of years old; her ancestors are said to have been traitors to the cause of the 1857 revolt, and she herself appears and disappears at will - sometimes a clubber, sometimes a socialite, sometimes a minister's adjunct, occasionally an admirer of Ghalib's poetry. Except that she fails to create the same impact as Fowler's Sarah Woodruff or Capote's Holly Golightly. Rather, she comes across as a two-dimensional character lacking psychological and emotional depth.
Dariba Kalan in New Delhi. There are shops here that have been vacant for years because the jewellers believe they are cursed. (HT file photo)
Characters such as Dayal, Kapoor and Smita are well drawn. Singh also brings several recent real-life issues in Delhi to the fore, the effort amply facilitated by his journalistic background. For instance, the various cases the three police officers investigate include, besides a psycho collecting human digits, a rape case (the question of north-eastern women living in the capital), the murder of an African drug dealer and his girlfriend (matters of racism), and the kidnapping of a three-year-old from an extremely affluent family (intimidation or perhaps a political gambit). Singh's engagement with these issues though, remains surface-level.
While they manage to capture rapists and hunt down murderers, the kidnapping case is forced to close before the architect of the crime has been caught. It upsets the idealist in Smita, but the two senior policemen acknowledge that one of the restraining factors of being in their job is that there are certain crimes the corridors of power would rather not have them solve.
It is interesting that this novel has appeared amongst a slew of 'Delhi books' this year, including Rana Dasgupta's Capital. A cross between genre fiction and a literary work, this novel, however, does complete justice to neither. The different cases lack substance, depth and intensity crucial for an interesting piece of fiction; the plots are sketchy, the climaxes flop.
Overall, it elicits a lukewarm response from the reader.
The author is the publisher of the Earthen Lamp Journal.