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Delhi Noir, Edited by Hirsh Sawhney
Tales from the dark side of the boom
Friday 20 November 2009
I hope that no copies of Delhi Noir ever fall into the hands of the city's police. If they do, many of the 14 authors of these nerve-shredding tales of life – and death – on the wrong side of the tracks in India's capital may face a sweaty hour or two the next time they need to renew a permit or report a crime.
The rogue's gallery of uniformed rapists, swindlers, torturers and bullies eviscerated here make the station-house thuggery of Slumdog Millionaire look like amateur hour. Zindaabaad democracy and all that, guys (an equally outspoken Beijing Noir, from local writers, would be quite unthinkable) - but do be careful how you go.
Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger reminded, or informed, a broad global readership that Indian fiction has long explored the plight of the poor as keenly as the travails of the middle class. Moving between districts of the ever-expanding but still uncool metropolis – Mumbai and Kolkata boast much more artsy cachet – this fearless crew enlist the motifs of hard-boiled crime to capture what editor Hirsh Sawhney calls the "inequality and cruelty" that disfigures the capital's gallop for growth. From the old-city labyrinth of Paharganj to the nouveau-riche suburb of Green Park and the spooky wastelands of the Ridge, encounters with crooked cops who steal, beat and kill bring into grim or farcical focus the uncivil lines of cash and clout that divide heroes from zeroes in the Indian boom.
The "noir" prescription can sometimes blunt the edge of satire and observation with a formulaic fix. It may offer the cosy pleasure of fairy-tale justice, as in Irwin Allan Sealy's deft tale of revenge exacted by a canny autorickshaw driver. But the strongest contributions make the machinery of crime a nippy vehicle to enter troubled minds and dark places where more genteel fiction would seldom dare to drive.
We witness tides of migration from the country - formerly Punjab, now Bihar - flow into Delhi's channels of power, patronage and corruption, in which so many drown. Meera Nair's "Small Fry" contrasts the daily humiliation of the uprooted poor around the bus terminal with "rich-people's business that wasn't exactly legal but never got anyone marched off in handcuffs". In Mohan Sikka's "The Railway Aunty", a student gigolo dances on a knife-edge between desire and danger that we feel in many stories here. Tabish Khair's "The Scam" shows how the well-meaning gaze of privilege can trace underclass misery not into the light of truth but a morass of misperception.
Uday Prakash's "The Walls of Delhi" (the only translated story, from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum, and one of the finest) blends parable and pathos as it touchingly portrays a cleaner, Ramnivas. He strikes lucky, for a while, seeming to discover that "the roots of happiness lie hidden in money". And, we will see, the roots of its opposite too.
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