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Remember Death review: Most pulp fiction fails to portray true India. Not this

Ankush Saikia’s new Arjun Arora thriller is marvellously Indian.

books Updated: Oct 22, 2016 09:09 IST
Prerna Madan
Night falls on the collonades of Connaught Place in New Delhi
Night falls on the collonades of Connaught Place in New Delhi(Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)

Everyone’s seen the yellow Lamborghini on Delhi’s streets; maybe not a purple Bugatti. But it’s close enough to suggest the capital’s opulence. In another chapter, detective Arjun Arora is inside Connaught Place’s Anand Parbat building, staring at the white colonial-era colonnades that run in concentric circles and house expensive restaurants, bars and some of the country’s most successful businesses. The view also takes in the panwallahs and smartphone cover-sellers who thrive in CP. Fast forward again: After his wife and daughter move out, Arjun’s housekeeper gives him the silent treatment, occasionally glaring at him.

It strikes this reviewer that while most Indian pulp fiction fails to portray a true image of our colourful nation, Ankush Saikia’s Remember Death is marvellously Indian. It does not fall prey to larger-than-life places and boisterous characters though there are the occasional indulgences. Almost every character is analysed by their caste or the state they come from, showing how individual identity is often entwined with backgrounds. The author’s tangential though still minute examination of India’s multilayered personality – the urban-rural divide, the schisms between the poor, the rich and the middle class apart from the ethnic divisions – makes his novel an authentic thriller.

Remember Death is all about contemporary life with its complexity and flourishing internal demons. Arjun is the modern anti hero. A Byronesque, brooding character who lives a solitary life and bears the scars of a failed marriage; he is an alcoholic who tries to quit drinking but repeatedly gives in to temptation. The reader learns, through the course of the novel that his past, which includes an unceremonious exit from the army and a turbulent stint in Iraq, continues to haunt him. The only thing he is good at is investigating, and that’s how he distracts himself from the existential crises brewing within him.

The effort taken to sketch the contours of Arjun’s character is missing in Agnes Pereira, the pivot of the mystery, who is relegated to being a damsel in distress. The author’s attempt to mystify her with unknown phone calls and incomplete information has no relevant influence on the plot.

Ankush Saikia (Picture courtesy Penguin India)

Remember Death’s most endearing element is its treatment of relationships. Arjun’s constant worry about his parents’ mortality and the bond with his teenage daughter Rhea reflects how nuclear families are today. Even the characters on the sidelines, his secretary Liza and journalist friend Poppy Barua, have depth and power. They aren’t just instruments who help unfold the mystery, but are dependable allies unlike Agnes, who is consistently on the distrustful narrator’s radar.

The real enigma in the novel, though, is a Bollywood drama from the mid 20th century. The tragedy of a budding actress, Munni, who went missing in the 1960s and her illegitimate child with a former politician forms a mini Bollywood film embedded within the plot. A few hair-raising characters like the possessive, controlling mother of the delicate actress, Sultana Begum, and a shrewd millionaire spiritual leader, Kailash Swami, add to the mystery.

Sadly, much of the thrill subsides when all the elements of past and present merge to form a pattern as in a Rubik’s cube. The mysteries disintegrate into branches, serving to distract the detective and the reader from the original task – finding the person who wanted to kill Agnes.

Ankush Saikia’s novel is as much a thriller about murders and assassins as it is about the fear of death. Mortality, the idea that it could all be over in a minute, is a recurring theme. It warns, as do Sultana Begum’s black stone-encrusted gold earrings: Mememto Mori – Latin for ‘Remember that you will die’.

Read more: Excellent non fiction from HT’s archives by Ankush Saikia