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Sin city

This book was screaming to be done — I wonder why Delhi’s mainstream publishers didn’t cotton on. Pratik Kanjilal tells more.

books Updated: Jan 08, 2010 21:57 IST

Delhi Noir
Edited by Hirsh Sawhney
harpercollins # Rs 399 # pp 289

What exactly is noir? Half a century after its birth on the American screen, in which shelfloads of critical work has been written on the genre, no one still knows. In fact, the jury is still out on whether it constitutes a genre at all. Maybe it’s just all genres seen in a particularly gritty shade of darkness — of noir. All colours look the same in the dark.

But noir does have unique stock characters: the gumshoe, the picaro with a heart, the straight guy forced or lured into crime, and the millions of people who live invisible lives in the ground clutter of the metropolis. Hirsh Sawhney’s writers have chosen well from the denizens of Delhi and avoided the issue of genre by including all genres, right down to the social problem story. Delhi Noir begins with a classic hardboiled by Omair Ahmad and closes with a science fiction biohazard drama by Manjula Padmanabhan.

Ahmad and another contributor to this collection, Siddharth Chowdhury, have been shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize this year, and all the writers have produced well-plotted, well-crafted tales. However, I did not warm to this volume so much for its literary virtuosity — noir ritualistically follows patterns laid down ages ago and has almost no room for the element of surprise. Rather, I was engaged by the editor’s selection of stories that explore the diverse physical and cultural geographies which make up the city.

Omair Ahmad’s hardboiled detective story, set in present-day Nizamuddin, is actually about our persistent sense of guilt about the 1984 riots. Radhika Jha’s story about a naked man on the loose is actually about heroin addiction, a serious social problem since the early 80s. Meera Nair depicts a minor but fatal incident in the terrorist networks, which periodically infest the city. Palash Krishna Mehrotra has a surreal take on the talent for murder displayed by Delhi’s domestic help while Chowdhury looks at politics on campus.

Tabish Khair and Hartosh Singh Bal, who have walked the beat themselves, look at the city’s many deceptions through the eyes of a journalist. And Ruchir Joshi, Uday Prakash and Nalinaksha Bhattacharya show us a police force, which is inherently criminal. In fact, the cops are so excrescently omnipresent that one section of the book bears the unnerving slogan of the Delhi Police — ‘With You, For You, Always’.

Delhi Noir is the latest title in a series launched by Akashic Books of New York in 2004. The first, Brooklyn Noir, was a hit and the series fanned out across America, through Boston, Chicago and Phoenix, and went international via Dublin, Havana, Istanbul, Mexico City, London, Paris, Toronto and Trinidad. Forthcoming titles will cover Mumbai, Lagos, Haiti and Copenhagen.

This book was screaming to be done — I wonder why Delhi’s mainstream publishers didn’t cotton on — but it has minor imperfections. The editing is quite patchy but that’s routine these days, when there are far too many commissioning editors and almost no copy editors. Delhi, the capital of a corrupt nation, is where the criminal trail goes right to the top. But most of the stories stop short at the underclass, showing no inclination to go up the food chain to the fat cats in the posh colonies and vihars of South Delhi, where they say it rains harder because there’s more sin to wash away. But I guess low-lifes are more fun to write about.

But the third problem, concerning language, is a serious matter. The Hindi writer Uday Prakash is the sole representative of 24 Indian languages. All the other contributors write in English. Paris Noir and Istanbul Noir are as they should be — dominated by writing translated from French and Turkish. I can only put it down to intellectual laziness, because it isn’t that hard to find. Delhi Noir is a great beginning, but the lack of linguistic diversity makes it a shadow of what it could have been.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine