Delhi Noir attracted me with its unique title. Being a Delhiite, anything remotely related to Delhi is bound to appeal. So, one look at the title and I picked it up. However, what I encountered was much beyond my wildest dreams!
The book is a curious mix of 14 stories, that differ in background, narration and style, authored by 14 writers, who have little in common other than Delhi. But, to give due credit to the Editor, this colorful collection is very strategically divided into following three sections:
1. With You, For You always – a popular motto of Delhi Police comprises of 05 stories. All of them are woven around the Policemen, except ‘Last in, First out’, where absence of security in city, is the main theme.
2. Youngistan – Dubbed as the voice of young India, 05 stories are bouqueted that have Delhi youth as protagonist with devil-may-care attitude, trying to cope up with the newly acquired frankness in relations.
3. Walled City, World City – had 04 stories related with walls or barriers. Be it a literal cement wall stashed with hard cash, or an invisible dome created over a city or even a symbolic wall, broken by protagonist while undertaking new challenges.
To tell you the truth, I was floored by these neat surgically cut sections. These parts did bring a semblance of unity in diversity as far as novel is concerned. And, nevertheless, I did like some of the stories, prominent among them being, Yesterday Man by Omair Ahmed, Cull by Manjula Padmanabhan, Last in First out by Irvin Allan Sealy and the Scam by Tabish Khair.
Delhi Noir, as mentioned by Editor Harsh Sawhney in his note, is the first in the Noir series in India and can be loosely categorized as crime fiction. Here, an attempt has been made to create a web where diverse crimes are undertaken and looked at from a different perspective. As Delhi as a city, is a hub of activity, and not all of it is legal or sacred, Delhi Noir attempts to look at the underbelly and expose the grime lurking beneath the shiny glitter of this gigantic town of endless possibilities.
The beginning was good. Yesterday Man by Omair Ahmed is unlike anything I have read so far. It is the story of a Sikh, who is trapped in the year 1984. Time seems to have stopped for him, ever since he bore witness to the ghastly riots, that burnt the city, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He wears the clothes that were in fashion in 1980s, he has maintained the same old hairstyle, and even displays the calender of 1984, with his clock showing time in reverse!
As a smart woman detective solves the mystery of this man being trapped in a time warp, I began to evince real interest in Delhi Noir. Though, I found the climax a bit rushed, yet the story had a fresh feel, while ironically being based on yesterday. With a good beginning, my expectations soared. I felt that the book is riddled with immense possibilities and after the shoddy treatment of assassinations by Arvind Adiga, I thought, at last I have hit upon a worthy mystery book.
But, I could not be more wrong, as the book acquired a slippery downward slope right after the first good impression. Most of the stories were full of vulgar innuendos, cheap tricks and unspeakable physical discourses. Somewhere, I began to feel uneasy, dirty and unclean, and even thought about abandoning it mid way. However, after every two three insufferable stories, was placed a good one, that kept me going.
Other than Yesterday Man, I quite liked ‘Last In First Out’, which is a story in reverse gear, just as the title suggests. In Delhi, Autorickshaw drivers have a very bad reputation, they are often branded as cheats, who do not shy away from looting the innocent passengers. But, in the present story, an exactly opposite trait of autowallahs is revealed. The protagonist witnesses a man being hurt and a woman being molested on the ridge, his conscience shakes him and he takes it upon himself to punish the wrong doer. So, in a reversal of role, the driver takes center stage, as criminals run for their lives and Policemen remain inconspicuous by their absence. The story is fast paced, quite novel and written well.
More than anything, it kept me breathing, till I reached Scam, where reality behind false social pretences is unveiled. And, then came the last one ‘Cull’, which in exact juxtaposition to the first story, is set in far future, when technology has advanced considerably and yet a section of town is left isolated, with disastrous consequences.
When I began this review, I tried hard to be positive, as I felt that the above mentioned four stories do deserve a word of appreciation, but as I look back, I can feel certain uneasiness, a queasy feeling of having read something sinister, loaded with lust and crime. Delhi Noir could have heralded a new genre of crime fiction, be a torch bearer of thrillers and mysteries set in the romantic land of Dilwalon Ki Dilli. But, somewhere the taste of good crime fiction was spoiled by the extra spices of physicality, degrading the value of the book. The overemphasis on carnal orgies gave it a look of a racy, street thriller rather than the highly acclaimed Noir Series, it was intended for.
For me, Delhi Noir is an open and shut book, which is to be forgotten as soon as I finish it, as a bad dream!