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Murder thriller set in Delhi (… the best of ‘Indian Noir’) – plus author interiew
20th November 2015
Dead Meat by Ankush Saikia – murder thriller set in Delhi.
Practising what we preach, I read Dead Meat on a recent trip to India. We spent two days in Delhi, and then went on to tour the brilliant palaces, forts, and temples of Rajasthan. Dead Meat, though, remains firmly anchored in Delhi. The book starts (not for the squeamish) with a body being cut up with a meat cleaver and the parts being burnt in a tandoor oven… Private detective Arjun Arora is hired to investigate the disappearance of a mid-ranking, but trusted, accountant from his company – and soon concludes that the body is, in fact, that of the accountant. But who murdered him and why?
The story moves apace though a panoply of modern India – corruption in high places, great contrasts in lifestyle between rich and poor, the obsession with T20 cricket (and the vast illegal betting business that surrounds it). Without giving too much away, the bookies are not exactly gentle with those who owe them money… and there is no such thing as a certain winning bet… The book moves to a convincing denouement.
Arjun Arora, in the best tradition of such novels, is of course a troubled man. He has split from his wife and is drinking too much. This, as I have said in other reviews, seems almost de rigueur for such characters. I sometimes wonder why ‘normal’ people seem incapable of being effective detectives (either police or private…)! He is also obsessed with keeping in touch with his daughter – and with cooking (there are several great recipes for Indian food in the book…)
I enjoyed Dead Meat enormously, and would recommend it to anyone. In fact I probably enjoyed it more than enormously… My only very slight concern is whether I enjoyed it as much as I did was because I read it on my first trip to India – and the places and sounds that I was experiencing in Delhi were really brought to life by the book. Yes, it was exciting to read about Connaught Place, traffic jams on the Delhi ring road, and the awe inspiring India Gate – but I am pretty sure that the book was a great read in its own right. The bringing together of location experiences – although in many ways the raison d’être of TripFiction – was really just a welcome bonus. It is very well written, and has a crisp and well thought through plot.
Tony for the TripFiction Team
We posed a few questions to Ankush:
TF: As you will know, the ‘location’ in which a book is set is very important for TripFiction. Your knowledge of Delhi is clearly impressive… What is your connection with the city?
AS: I come from the North East of India (a region which borders Myanmar and Tibet), and, like many young people from that area, travelled to Delhi after finishing my college education in Shillong, in search of higher education and employment. I ended up staying for 14 years in Delhi, first with friends, and then alone, during which time I took up a few courses and then worked in journalism and publishing. So I was in Delhi for quite some time, and I got to experience various facets of the city during that time, from the high to the low, from the grime to the sophistication. All that time I was trying to write, but it was only after returning to the North East that I was finally able to map out a dark Delhi thriller. Distance does seem to allow you to see a place better!
TF: Dead Meat is the first Indian thriller that I have read. It is exciting and tense (and, dare I say, a little bit Western in its construct). Are thrillers of this nature popular in the Indian market – or did you write it with a broader world market in view?
AS: Dead Meat is a detective thriller, a type of book that developed in the West out of industrialization and urban life and individualism. As such, books of this sort do tend to have a few common characteristics: an alienated main character, bleak urban settings, a certain amount of black humour etc. no matter whether they are written in Europe or South Africa or Japan. At the same time, I would say the specific Indian references are what give Dead Meat its flavour (ignore the bad pun!). Thrillers of this nature are just starting to get popular in the Indian market, though for a long time there have been pulp fiction novels in regional Indian languages.
TF: How do you feel about Dead Meat being classified as Indian Noir? Is it a convenient shorthand, or is it limiting? I immediately thought of coining the term for the title of my review – and then Googled it and discovered that it already existed. Did you set out to deliberately write a book in this genre, or did it just fall into it?
AS: It would be good to have Dead Meat recognized as Indian Noir, considering that’s what I set out to write (well, a noir-ish crime novel featuring a detective). My previous book published by Penguin India, The Girl From Nongrim Hills, was a noir thriller set in the North East of India, in the city of Shillong. And as one reviewer (in the New Indian Express) commented, the book showed “how the complex realities of Indian lands can be told through genre fiction and not only non-fiction and literary fiction”. For quite some time, I had the desire to write a book that captured the dark side of the Indian capital, especially the great contrasts one sees in the city. So it was deliberate, and the detective happened to come along as I started writing (I had initially thought that his loud and brash friend would be the main character). The “tandoor murder” in the book, by the way, was inspired by an actual crime that took place in Delhi in the mid-90s.
TF: Arjun Arora is the classic ‘flawed’ detective – split from his wife, and drinks too much. Why do you think it is that so many writers create their detectives in this mould? Why is the ‘clean living’ detective currently out of fashion?
AS: You’re right about it. Wallander and Rebus are somewhat to be blamed for that! I guess a flawed and damaged character is more interesting than a normal one, especially when he starts investigating a crime. Also, such a person is more likely to be a loner, with very little interests or contacts outside of his work, and this—from a technical point of view—is helpful for the writer because he’s spared describing a full life that a more normal character might have. Also the darkness in certain areas of the world (as I write this the Paris attacks 13/11/15 have just taken place) seem to intrude in a way on people’s lives, including a detective’s.
TF: You write of corruption in high places, and of vast illegal bookmaking operations. I imagine these are based on fact… How does the average Indian react to such activities? Are they tolerated as being just ‘the way it is’? Or is there any movement to clean up corruption and such wholesale flouting of the law?
AS: Based on facts, yes. The immensely popular (at least at the beginning) of the T20 league in India led to cases of bribery and match-fixing. Then there has always existed corruption in government on a large scale. While there are movements trying to clean up things, most Indians take the situation as a given. It is also about things occurring in a particular period of a society’s development, like say the fixing of the baseball World Series in America in 1919.
TF: You write of the great contrast between rich and poor in India (a fact we could hardly miss on our recent trip…). Arjun seems to go out of his way to be kind to the poor… Is this typical Indian behaviour, or do most just pass by (as sadly we were advised to) on the other side? This would appear to be a subject that troubles you personally.
AS: The contrasts between rich and poor exist, and are more readily visible to people who come visiting from more affluent countries. The typical Indian already has enough problems and hardships in their life without having to worry about the welfare of the poor people they see on a daily basis. Looking at it too closely disturbs people, which is why most of them tend to ignore it. But there are those who notice it, and who try to make a difference. Arjun is someone who notices without necessarily doing anything about it. Inequality is a very true and distressing fact of life in India.
TF: Arjun is a great cook (I am planning to make one of his meals this week…). I sense cooking may be a hobby of yours? If so, what are your favourite dishes?
AS: I used to cook quite a bit earlier, especially when I was in Delhi, but not so much after I got married, as my wife is a much better cook than me! Food is an interest of mine, especially in the way it reflects the culture of a people. I love Assamese, Khasi and Naga dishes from the North East (and a lot more besides), and one of my favourite dishes would be pork cooked with bamboo shoots and raja mircha (one of the hottest in the world, and one that Arjun eats!). That dish, along with rice, would be a favourite of many a person from North East India. And a close second would be tandoori chicken from a good Delhi restaurant!
Thank you to Ankush for fabulous answers!