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Thursday, January 17, 2013

delhi noir

‘Noir’ is French for black. The noir mood in cinema and literature indicates a hard-nosed realism, a focus on the seamier side of life, and a wry, satirical, even bitter or despairing outlook arising from it. The noir series of short stories, originally based on contemporary low life in some US metropolises, has now spawned imitations worldwide, and some of them are good (look up this list). I have just finished reading Delhi Noir, and it made gripping reading – besides making me surer of myself that I have always been right about three things: a) big cities are increasingly becoming the same everywhere, b) I am very lucky not to have to live in one of them, and c) no country can hope for much in the way of long-term social peace and stability, leave alone progress in any meaningful sense, unless it goes all out to give a better deal to the vast under-class of down and out people who are always swarming, scrounging, fighting, cheating, robbing, mocking, killing, getting killed and otherwise interacting with their better off fellow citizens simply out of the primal urge to get along as best as they can through a life which loaded the dice against them from the very first. No moral codes apply, simply because, in Shaw’s immortal words, they cannot afford them. The wonder is that some of them not infrequently behave in such a way as to put us, their ‘betters’,  to shame.

Think autorickshaw drivers, bus ticket touts, roadside chaiwallah’s assistants, municipal sweepers, small-time hookers – and police constables and junior journos on the beat, resident doctors at government hospitals and petty shopkeepers and tenement landlords, the vanguard of the upper classes who cannot avoid rubbing shoulders all the time with the former (an ordeal from which the really privileged are insulated most of the time), and you get the brew out of which these fourteen tales are concocted. Only a long-time Delhiite with eyes wide open will be able to confirm how true to life they are, of course, but from what little I have myself known, they do, most grittily, even gorily. The only thing I am not sure about is whether the Delhi Police deserves such unrelenting bad press. Some of these stories even manage to do that almost impossible thing – make the reader laugh, or at least grin ruefully, even as she sighs over what a bad shape the world is in: How I lost my clothes by Radhika Jha, for example, and Hostel by Siddharth Chowdhury. Some, like The Scam by Tabish Khair make you wonder along with the author. Some, like The Walls of Delhi (by Uday Prakash, translated from Hindi) carry you away into a world of fantasy which does not have a happy ending. A few like Railway Aunty by Mohan Sikka would move even a jaded reader to pity: the poor boy had fun of a weird sort for a brief while, but in the end he stood no chance at all.

The last story in the collection (Cull, by Manjula Padmanabhan) stands apart from the rest, for it alone is set in an imaginary future rather than the present; a bleak dystopia set in a ‘New’ Delhi sometime maybe a hundred years hence, when the gigantic, almost-totally-planned urban agglomeration is aspiring to be a World City, but is challenged by the cancer within – brought back echoes of all sorts of books and movies, including Brave New World and District 9.

They are all accomplished writers, at ease with the language in its sahib and desi idioms and confident of their message. Only, they could use fewer expletives without seriously harming either their style or content, I think (it’s become such a cool thing to do post Chetan Bhagat that far better writers are deliberately stooping in order to catch the average reader’s eye), and somehow, they sound a little too alike, as though they have been cooked under the eyes of the selfsame chief chef. Something to do with the editing, perhaps, or is it just a personal illusion? … which reminds me, this is a book where the introduction written by the editor must be read for its own sake. Saying any more would be a spoiler; go read the book. And thanks, Dipanwita and Arani, for giving me this book to read. I should very much like to read Kolkata noir. If Didi permits such a book to see the light of day, that is.

[delhi noir, edited by Hirsh Sawhney, published jointly by Harper Collins India and India Today group 2009, ISBN 978-81-7223-853-7, pp. 289, Rs. 399]

P.S., Jan. 20: Do look up the latest post on my other blog.


Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,

What a co-incidence! I have been reading the books of the Akashic noir series recently (the JU library of the English department has almost all of them), and I have read this one as well. Noir has always been one of my favourite cinematic/literary genres, though, as you have rightly pointed out, they are seldom feel-good in terms of content, and the style employed by noirists is accordingly stark and bleak.

I must say, however, that I was less impressed by this anthology than you are. In particular, a few stories, like 'Fit of Rage' by Palash Krishan Mehrotra, seemed rather clunky and drab to me, and the mystery element--central to any good noir tale--in some of the stories just wasn't strong enough. And besides the needless overuse of expletives that you have mentioned, I think some of the stories, like the one by Ruchir Joshi for example (I forget its name), doesn't have the kind of hard-boiled sensibility or wry observations that noir prose is famous for. I guess I could be accused of nitpicking, for this certainly isn't a bad set of stories. Maybe it's the fact that the other anthologies in the series have far better yarns that left me somewhat underwhelmed about this. In particular, Boston noir, edited by none other than Dennis Lehane, is brilliant: almost every story in that collection is worth a read, including and especially Lehane's own, which succeeds in being gripping, world-weary, darkly humourous and violent, and yet manages to end on a note of genuine optimism. And his introduction to the book is just as remarkable: in particular, his analysis of noir as a kind of "working class tragedy" enabled me look at the whole genre in a new light, and his description of the kind of idiosyncrasies the people of Boston are capable of drew spontaneous chuckles from me, though I happen to know very little about that particular city.
As for Kolkata noir, that would be great. We already have one such tale on celluloid: 'Kahaani'. Having them in printed form is something I would look forward to.

Many thanks for this blogpost.

With regards,
Abhirup Mascharak.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Upon reading your post I was remembering the eight years that I spent in Delhi. Despite all its better facilities, I could never adjust to the city. To me the city lacked soul and somehow I could never feel at home there. There were variety of things which I observed about the city that time, of which there were lot many positives too but somehow the negatives outweighed the positives. Anyway, no point continuing my rant if I don’t back it up by writing down my experiences, which at this stage I do not want to as it will only brings back negative memories.

I will try and get a copy of the book.


Ranajoy said...

Very nicely written indeed. I will try to get it here.
By the way,I am confident, you can start penning a "Kolkata Noir" or a "Mofussil Noir"(referring to Durgapur) and you will do proper justice to it.

Bhalo theko,

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for the review. I have never read books of this genre before but I would like to try. I have a question Sir, can noir literature be called dystopic? Or are all dystopian novels set in the future?


Shilpi said...

It took me some time to read and comment on this book review post of yours. It sounds like a collection of stories that need to be read and yet my heart and innards sort of sink at 'noir' tales. I was trying to recollect if I've read any and remembered a few; and one book stuck out - Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry paints and depicts the ghastliest Bombay 'noir' that has probably ever been written. I had put away the book for months and then read it all in one rush through the space of a late evening and night in Spring quite some years ago. And it's that line of yours about the rueful grin which reminded me of it although the grin fast disappears. Your whole post makes one feel mighty relieved yet again that one doesn't live in a great big city and what you say in (c) is something that haunts one. For most of the times one feels terribly grateful and expresses a bemused gratitude when one stays cloistered and away from the dark underside of cities and towns and its people and even scary youngsters. What does amaze me too is that more than a few people still manage to maintain their humanity in spite of such horrifying living conditions, and even when they are so ignored and seen as belonging to one undifferentiated mass of beings...

Vaishnavi, if I may, I'd hazard a guess that dystopian novels are always set in some future and there are some very large backdrops which are alluded to or are made clear through the progression of the tale - like some technological disaster or some bleak change in worldwide politics or some worldwide worship of the wrong gods (be that of commerce or technology or one ideology) or a breakdown in the natural environment because of us humans while a 'noir' tale is set within the chaos of the surrounding and 'current' social milieu. Even the wiki link actually gives a fairly good summary of dystopian novels.

Thank you for sharing this rather unsettling book review, Suvro da. I have to mention that the first and only book I've managed to finish reading very recently this year would probably stand in absolute contrast to the book you've written about; it's a tiny delightful book titled, Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami, and I'll heartily recommend this "non noir" book, which is strange to read. I sort of agree with Ranajoy (even your pani puri seller tale seemed like it would go further down the 'noir' road; you'd already hinted and painted some strokes in the first part but Debarshi made it into a more or less happy-happy tale...) but I'd prefer you writing fantasy tales with politics, poetry, romance and high adventure...