Review: A Natural History of Violence by Ankush Saikia - Hindustan Times
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Review: A Natural History of Violence by Ankush Saikia

ByPercy Bharucha
May 23, 2024 05:46 AM IST

Set in New Delhi, this whydunit is devoted to a hunt for truth that spans generations of a family and unravels the story behind a gruesome patricide

It is 2018, and the gruesome, cold-blooded murder of DCP Virender Bedi by his son Vikrant Bedi in their Delhi home sends shock waves through the capital. The Express sends its finest reporter Ruchi to cover the case. While there is no doubt as to who the murderer is, the “why” haunts Ruchi. Why would a son slit his father’s throat and then eat biryani while waiting for the police to arrive and apprehend him?

The middle class locality of Kalkaji in New Delhi was originally established to accommodate Partition refugees from Pakistan – people exactly like the family at the centre of Ankush Saikia’s A Natural History of Violence. (Tribhuwan Sharma/Hindustan Times)
The middle class locality of Kalkaji in New Delhi was originally established to accommodate Partition refugees from Pakistan – people exactly like the family at the centre of Ankush Saikia’s A Natural History of Violence. (Tribhuwan Sharma/Hindustan Times)

So begins Ankush Saikia’s remarkable whydunit, A Natural History of Violence, a novel devoted to a hunt for truth that spans generations of the Bedi family. Saikia maintains a fine balance between the present and the past as he takes the reader for an engaging romp through Delhi’s history going as far back as the Independence movement. The story of the Bedi family is deeply intertwined with the story of India as a young nation and of Delhi as its capital.

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124pp, ₹99 for the Kindle Edition (Amazon)
124pp, ₹99 for the Kindle Edition (Amazon)

Saikia’s Delhi is one that built the fortunes of many and offered a fresh start to those who arrive during the Partition. It chronicles the influx of survivors and the building of refugee colonies. While the city’s contemporary portrayal is nuanced and relatable, readers who have lived in Delhi will appreciate the care and attention Saikia pays to capturing the flavour of life in the capital. Right from the cops to the swear words, the traffic lights and the farmhouse parties, this is Delhi in all its explicit and honest glory.

Apart from being an investigative story with a pacy plot, Saikia’s novel is also a moving rendition of how grief travels through generations. As Ruchi untangles the father-son bond within the Bedi family she is forced to look at her own. When her husband disciplines her child harshly, she begins to wonder about the nature of the bond between father and son. As she explores the Bedi family tree it seems that fathers and sons have always had issues, leaving the women to pick up the pieces – a pattern she sees cropping up in her own family. Through the Bedi clan, Saikia charts a moving path of intergenerational grief and coping mechanisms that, at various points, drive family members to drink. In many ways, the recorded history of our nation minimises society’s fault lines, ignoring the desperation and hopelessness of its weakest members. When a young Lakhbir Singh sees his father killed in front of him by a communal mob, he never recovers; his mother withdraws into herself. When Lakhbir’s son is born with physical disabilities, his entire family collapses and his wife, like his mother, withdraws into herself leaving a lonely and tired Lakhbir to the bottle.

What Saikia manages to capture quite well in this story is the role of the past as a mediating force for our present relationships. Vikrant’s reasons for his father’s murder are linked to his past as are his father’s actions linked to those of his father and so on. The reader, like Ruchi, soon realizes, as they travel through these labyrinths of time, that the sooner the characters acknowledge where they come from, the sooner they will make peace with their true selves. It’s a peace that is the beginning of their transformation into who they want to be. This is evident in Vikrant, the last descendant of the Bedi family. Though he is imprisoned by his past like his forefathers, he decides to turn his life around.

Author Ankush Saikia (Courtesy Facebook)
Author Ankush Saikia (Courtesy Facebook)

A Natural History of Violence is a quick read. The characters are few and primacy is given to moving the story forward. The only weakness it might have is perhaps its laser focus on the plot, which takes away from the development of its cast. Apart from the few primary players, most of the cast is on a need-to-know basis with their development being a bit of an afterthought. Like Ruchi’s husband and her colleague, they appear superficial and unidimensional. More space and energy could have been devoted to their development for the reader to be invested in getting to know them. For instance, we never do find out the source of Farzan’s contempt for Delhiites apart from the fact that he isn’t one.

Overall, though, A Natural History of Violence makes for an engrossing read. Propelled by Saikia’s clutter-free narration and engaging plot line, it is an accurate portrayal of life in the capital.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

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