Nilanjana S Roy’s Black River is a sweet departure from his previous fiction – two delightfully subversive fantasy novels about gangs of feral cats inhabiting Delhi – The Wildings (2012) and its sequel, The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). Black River marks a fluid transition from fantasy to noir, setting this story of a savage murder and subsequent quest for justice in the liminal space between the sprawling urban sprawl of chaotic Delhi and the rapidly changing agrarian landscape that lies outside the metropolis.
The book explores the filthy world of crime, opening as a prosecution, but soon transforming into something that defies genre labels. Not so much a detective story, the focus of the narrative isn’t on twists and turns and red herrings. Instead of over-engaging with formal or formulaic concerns, he ruminates on issues of ethics and justice and is keenly aware of the dividing lines of class and religion in today’s urban and rural India. Alongside, and crucially, he also asks his privileged reader to immerse himself in a world of discomfort: the discomfort of being displaced, of living on the margins, of being accomplices to excessive consumption and inequity.
The distorted politics of justice
The narrative opens in Teetarpur in 2017, a village on the edge of the Delhi-Haryana border, we are told. It’s such an ordinary place that “it’s not known to have inspired a line in a movie song or even a mithai, it’s never produced as much as a celebrity or famous politician.” An anonymous place, insignificant, happy to be the reverse side of the frenetic pace of the big cities from which it deliberately averts its gaze, Teetarpur is thrown into sudden disorder when an eight-year-old girl, Munia, small and frail as the bird she is, takes the name, is found murdered.
In steps the local policeman, Ombir Singh, weary, permanently exhausted and sleep-deprived, a typical noir detective as also representing an impersonal state machine, neither belonging wholly to the place and people it serves, nor quite an outsider. The prime suspect is the village lunatic, a man lost in his own traumatic past, and fittingly, for the sake of identifying an easy assailant, a Muslim, in a predominantly Hindu village. His religious identity, and the eagerness of the villagers to punish him for it, is the novel’s first indication of the deep communal schism that defines our social spaces. There is also the spectrum of class that defines all social interactions.
Munia’s father, Chand, is a farmer whose land, by chance or not, adjoins that of Jolly Singh, the richest man in the village. Singh’s intervention calls for big guns and the ‘Delhi boy’, SSP Ashwini Pilania of the Haryana IPS cadre, is sent to Teetarpur to head the investigation. The pursuit of justice and the politics of the developmental perspective and the distorted nature of the distribution of the fruits of said development, constitute the primary territory of the novel.
A world that no longer claims to be inclusive
As the murder, outrage, and retribution (legal and extra-legal) unfold, Roy directs the reader’s attention to the rise of the far right and the recurring episodes of riots, lynchings, and other forms of communal violence that this dynamic generates. The narrative goes back in time to retrace Chand’s years in Delhi, first as a daily wager and then as a butcher’s apprentice in Badshah Miyan’s butcher’s shop in Mehrauli. Chand’s is an itinerant life, tenuously linked to his land, despite having made the decision to separate from it. Through the stories of Chand and his friends Khalid and Rabia, a complex picture of the growing communal tensions in Delhi begins to emerge.
As the story moves back and forth in time, it exposes the grisly truths of a majority culture that imposes restrictions not only on religious practices and lifestyles, but also on access to space. In Bright Dairy, a settlement with an obvious working-class identity, Muslims are intimidated into selling their properties and relocating. “Business is down,” Badshah Miyan says of another part of the city. “They make us close our shops, all of us, whenever there is a party or even a prayer meeting nearby. We are losing customers. Hindus nowadays go to Hindu butchers or order online.”
The place names might be fictitious, but the events unfolding and the attack on the financial resources of an entire community in pursuit of a common agenda are all too real. Roy brings the story to the fore when he mentions the riots following the demolition of Babri Masjid. He writes about settlements deemed illegal and brutally disrupted. He directs the reader’s attention, again and again, yet, in a completely unobtrusive way, towards acts of violence that show a growing apathy in a world that no longer claims to be inclusive.
The novel proposes a solution to this divide, when Chand says, “We’ll live in the cracks outside the gates,” but the reader will likely share the other characters’ lack of optimism when it comes to finding cracks and liminality that accept difference.
It is a measure of the writer’s skill that, even as it gives us a page turn, it brings us an acknowledgment of serious concern. The threat of abuse and assault facing women in the domestic sector, the vulnerability of migrant workers, the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse and the horrors of child trafficking are all sensitive topics that are addressed without pedantry or sensationalism.
When Roy has a reporter ask, “Are Indian girls ever safe?” the irony is inevitable. Indian girls are not safe, of course, but the media’s unsympathetic coverage of horrific incidents of abuse and violence does nothing to either create awareness or further the cause of safety.
Teetarpur and its surrounding villages, like much of the rest of the country, have kept caste discrimination alive and thriving. When autopsies are to be performed, doctors, typically from the top of the caste hierarchy, refuse to touch the bodies – “who knows who is from where” – and have low-skilled, “low caste” young people with rudimentary training do it for them. Caste pollution restrictions remain unchanged and largely unchallenged in 21st century India.
One book, many worlds
One of the most remarkable parts of the book is when the narrative leads us to Chand, Khalid and Rabia’s creation of a domestic idyll on the banks of the Yamuna, a river thought to be inhospitable, even hostile in most contemporary accounts. There is poetry in Roy’s image of the Yamuna: “The river still exerts an almost imperceptible pull on the capital’s subconscious, from time to time infecting its citizens with dreams of water and submerged nightmares. ‘River of sorrows, river of tears, the river that engulfs the world poisons’, Khalid sings to Rabia and Chand, ‘she carries them in her flowing body until even her waters can carry no more’”.
Roy’s prose, when writing about Yamuna, has the same magic the reader has come to associate with her Wilding books. He also makes a rather evocative study of vulnerabilities – of pain, of love and even romance. Friendships are forged over the decades and families are formed out of kinship ties. This leitmotif of human connections and the resulting search for human values seems central to this story.
With all its literary merits, Black River it’s also a book that most mystery readers are likely to enjoy. The mystery itself isn’t particularly difficult to solve, and all crime enthusiasts will have figured it out long before the final reveal. The epilogue has a delightfully cinematic 80s feel to it, but it would be unforgivable to explain how.
Roy does noir and does it well, but he also raises, almost covertly, questions of ecological catastrophes and environmental degradation. His narrative is steeped in history and sociological realism and rightfully so, because in the post-truth world we inhabit, history is often obliterated and facts often suppressed and we need to turn more and more to fiction, to better understand the human condition, its tragedies and its truths. Black River offers on all these aspects.
black river, Nilanjana S Roy, Westland.