Cut Like Wound
Rs. 299 pp 358
Reading good detective fiction is like sucking on a stick of Sour Punk; it makes you gasp and wonder. True, that tastebud twisting confection doesn’t give you insights into a social milieu or prompt, like the work of PD James does, rumination on religion and the tortured flow of history; and it doesn’t, like the gliding prose of Raymond Chandler, leave you marveling. The analogy might seem as warped as Sherlock Holmes’ cocaine-shot mind between cases but a true devotee of the genre will know that the best detective fiction, like Sour Punk, leaves you greedy for more. Perhaps it’s the comfort of pattern, of knowing the world within the pages of the novel, unlike the real, infinitely messier one, will eventually make sense, that loose ends will be tied up and motives established, that makes detective fiction addictive. So far, possibly because writers are afraid their characters might be as quaintly unreal as HRF Keating’s Inspector Ghote, Indian English fiction hasn’t engaged with too many crabby detective inspectors. Besides, in a culture that has come to worship material success, wouldn’t the brilliant but dissolute and disrespectful detective be an anomaly?
Anita Nair’s Inspector Borei Gowda, “soft in the middle, blurred at the edges” who knocks back shots of Old Monk, lovingly tends to his Bullet, and is blessed with superior deduction skills, that superpower of every hero detective from Poirot to Dalgliesh, is an anomaly in the Bengaluru police force and therefore a perfect protagonist.
“There is a certain solidness to the name and it complemented the image I had of Borei Gowda as someone who is kind of little squashy in the middle and a little crumpled inside,” says Nair whose earlier novels, Ladies Coupé and Better Man, have been works of literary fiction.
“I’ve never been able to read crime novels because I always go and read the last pages, which kills it completely," says Nair who nevertheless read Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Michael Rowbotham to acquaint herself with the genre.
“It’s easy in some ways for a Rebus because that world lends itself beautifully to crime fiction,” she says referring to Ian Rankin’s now sadly retired character and his escapades in the cobbled closes of Edinburgh. Storytelling isn’t as easy, apparently, in a setting encumbered by bureaucracy and departmental corruption. To infuse Cut Like Wound with authenticity, Nair reached out to Bengaluru’s police force. “I went to many police stations and at every place I drank the same kind of tea, ate the same kind of cake and was given the same kind of sanitised reports,” says Nair. Eventually, a policeman on leave and temporarily out of uniform, and therefore less inhibited, told her how criminal informers were picked and about third degree interrogation – information that has been used in the book.
The plotting is tight, the setting is familiar to Indian readers and the characters are rivetting. The Trainspottiest side of Edinburgh couldn’t have hosted Cut Like Wound’s startling scenes of ritual worship or its lively transgenders. Even the venal corporator is believable. “The corporator is based on someone who used to pick up garbage from my house. His mum used to do my dishes. Now, she’s driving around in a Fortuner!” says Nair who has witnessed how Bengaluru, where the novel is set, has changed in the 21 years it has been her home. Indeed, Borei Gowda with his conflicted soul, his complicated love life and his difficult relationships comes across as a Kannadiga Rebus.
“Once I’ve created a character, I step into their shoes,” says Nair who admits to an element of wish fulfillment in her identification with Gowda. “Here’s a character who can do all the things I can’t. He rides a Bullet and can get piss drunk – all those things that one part of me won’t allow me to be or do,” she says revealing that another Borei Gowda novel is already underway. “He is probably the most interesting character I’ve created, I can’t let him go,” says Nair who worked on Cut Like Wound for two years.
A confirmed detective fiction junkie, you hope the author hurries up with the next instalment. It’s torture to wait two years for any man; it’s even worse if he’s as interesting as Inspector Borei Gowda, one of the few fictional characters with whom you’d happily share your stick of Sour Punk.