Delhi Noir

Edited version of a shortish review that appeared in the New Indian Express (here) a few days ago:

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For the past few years, Akashic Books have been publishing anthologies of noir writing set in various cities across the world. The selection is diverse and fascinating, with such unusual settings as Trinidad, Istanbul, Richmond and Havana.

Published by Harper Collins in India, Delhi Noir is edited by Hirsh Sawhney, and it is an intriguing collection of short fiction set in the capital city, populated by a diverse cast of characters. Irwin Allen Sealy’s “Last In, First Out”, the story of a vigilante auto-rickshaw driver named Baba Ganoush, is one of the best things about the collection. Baba Ganoush is that classic character of the genre; the decent guy whose attempts to do good are thwarted by an immoral system. In this he has a lot in common with the narrator of Omair Ahmad’s “Yesterday Man”, a private detective investigating a case with links to the 1984 riots. Likewise, Hartosh Singh Bal’s excellent “Just Another Death” features a well-meaning journalist trying to uncover the real story behind a mysterious death in the fact of a number of extremely successful attempts to conceal the truth.

“Hissing Cobras” by Nalinaksha Bhattacharya is a classic, hardboiled story about a policeman who blackmails and rapes a young housewife, while Mohan Sikka’s “Railway Aunty” has an older woman manipulating a young man into performing sexual favours, first for her and then for an increasing network of her acquaintances.

Radhika Jha’s “How I Lost My Clothes” stands out in this collection. It is the bleakly funny tale of a man who finds himself unexpectedly naked and travels through the city attempting to remedy this. “How I Lost My Clothes” straddles the border between the realistic and the bizarre. Jha is not the only writer to introduce elements of non-realistic fiction. The title character of Ahmad’s “Yesterday Man” might easily have popped straight out of a magical realist novel. And though Uday Prakash’s wonderful “The Walls of Delhi”, translated by Jason Grunebaum, at first appears a solid, traditional story of a man tempted by money into making a bad decision, a subtle twist at the end makes one wonder if this story too might fall into that category.

Manjula Padmanabhan’s “Cull”, on the other hand, is outrightly Science Fiction. Set in a dystopic future Delhi where every aspect of human life is regulated, this is the story of a group of stubborn members of the underclass who refuse to be wiped out.

The collection does have its weaker points. Siddharth Chowdhury’s “Hostel” feels incomplete and is too clearly extracted from a larger work. It suffers further from being placed right after Mohan Sikka’s stronger piece. Ruchir Joshi’s “Parking”, set an upper-class South Delhi neighbourhood, is a good story but it’s not really “noir” enough. It and Padmanabhan’s story both fit uncomfortably in this collection. Indeed, the placing of Padmanabhan’s story at the end of the collection rather gives the idea that the editor wasn’t sure what to do with it.

It is also a bit unfortunate that Uday Prakash’s story should be the only translated piece in a collection of fourteen stories.

On the whole, however, Delhi Noir is a good collection which brings to light a few real treasures. I will be seeking out more work by writers like Prakash, Jha and Sikka. Akashic have plans to publish a Mumbai Noir collection in the near future, but it will have a hard time beating the Delhi edition.

3 Comments to “Delhi Noir”

  1. You've got a pretty good blog up here. Loved going through it.

    Want to read DELHI NOIR now. Before I go and purchase it(which is not going to happen within the next 10 days because of ongoing exams), can you give me a rating pointer sort of thing for me, as they do it with new releases etc.

  2. Thank you! But I don't like ratings, and prefer not to do them.

  3. Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

    - Daniel

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