‘Black River’ explores the unseen fringes of Delhi but falters on plot

“Any question I want to ask about the world, I could ask in a detective novel.” That was Scottish writer Ian Rankin in 2010, explaining in an interview with this reviewer, why the genre seemed so powerful and political to him. In his books starring brooding Edinburgh police-inspector John Rebus, the detective novel breaks out of the workings of genteel ‘locked-room mysteries’ and into seedy back alleys and working-class neighbourhoods, alive and alert to class and gender fault lines and the neuroses of the powerful. In traditional storylines, the reward is cerebral. A bloodhound solves the riddle created by a murderer’s deception and, in doing so, restores moral order. Murder offers writers such as Rankin, Denise Mina and Henning Mankell the opportunity to travel into the darkness of their societies, to take a sharp and disturbing look at the violence, inequality and evil that surrounds them – and at the structures and economies that they make them possible. There is little redemption and much moral unrest in the end.

Nilanjana S.Roy
Black River
Context (November 2022)

A crime novel set in and around Delhi, Nilanjana S. Roy’s Black River promises such a tour in the dark. It casts a wide net, from Teetarpur, an unremarkable village on the edge of the Delhi-Haryana border, ‘famous for nothing’, to the ‘black river’, the Yamuna, which is being swallowed up by a greedy and growing metropolis. Although the novel goes back and forth in time, its present is the “new India”, where hatred and dehumanization haunt Muslim minorities on a daily basis. Black River it is ambitious, skilfully written, and drenched in sympathy. But he falters because he is torn between what could have been – an impressive novel about the death and life of a river, and the temporary people around it – and what he tries too hard to become: a competent police procedural.

The book opens with a sense of stifled menace. A young girl, Munia, hides out in an orchard and witnesses a secret rendezvous on a patch of land near her home. A man meets a woman and strangles her. Within a few chapters, short and somber, Munia too is dead, found hanging from a jamun tree. At the crime scene, Munia’s father Chand finds a weeping man, Mansoor Khan, a ‘fool’ and wanderer, ‘one of the Almighty’s imperfect pots fired from the clay, with a crack running through it’. It is now up to Sub-Inspector Ombir Singh, the resident constable of Teetarpur village, to shut down Chand and prevent the prime suspect from being lynched.

Like the classic noir detective, Ombir Singh is weighed down with cynicism and weariness – “his weariness like a familiar heavy backpack”. His personal life is troubled; his professional prospects are slim. He is sadly aware of his helplessness in the police bureaucracy. When an elderly policeman parachutes into the village, Ombir sees him as someone “who wants to do good, who sprinkles goodness from above into people’s lives, as if they were holy ashes”.

As a policeman in a prosecution set in an Indian village, he also has to deal with the usual dysfunctions. There is only one filing cabinet for the most important crime files; the rest goes in jute sacks. No team of forensic scientists calls him to collect evidence: footprints are erased, even a body disappears in the course of his investigation. He can’t rely on the autopsy reports. Most autopsies around here are conducted by unqualified medical assistants, as upper caste doctors rarely want to touch the bodies themselves.

When a mob gathers around the police station, instigated by the most powerful man of Teetarpur, demanding Mansoor’s handover, Ombir quietly surrenders. “His years in the police force have not convinced him that there is much justice in the universe, or that it is his job to do justice. But he doesn’t like deception. He doesn’t like loose ends.

The reader sees the world of Teetarpur through the cynical eyes of Ombir, but he is not the emotional center of the novel. That role belongs to Chand, the heartbroken father. In its second and prettiest section, there is an incoming curve Black River – as the novel scrolls backwards to chronicle Chand’s journey to Delhi at the height of liberalisation. Here he becomes one with the “invisible tide” of migrant workers flowing through the city.

“Every morning, the tide sends a tide of people who work to build Delhi’s roads and houses, to protect the factories and offices of the wealthy…and every evening, the tide goes out, driving them out of the city, scattered like human debris.”

Make friends with a Bengali couple, Khaled and Rabia, mismatched like Amitav Ghosh’s Fokir and Moyna The Hungry Tide. He, the man with a ‘river nature’ who cannot live in concrete houses; she, the pragmatic mother who must find a way to survive in a city with a stone heart. On the banks of the Yamuna – a river that in a few decades will turn into a black cesspool – the three friends build a house, despite police raids and demolition campaigns. Roy tells the story of this friendship with deep sympathy and tenderness. This is a Delhi of laborers and butchers, cooks and painters, but the novel does not turn them into objects of “research”.

The river, as home not only to homeless humans but also to fish and birds, magur and katla, orange-billed Indian skimmers and painted storks, offers a humane and alternative vision of what the city might have been. This is the marrow of Roy’s book, the radiant Delhi novel hiding in the shell of the police procedural. The reader will want to stick with this narrative, but, wait, there’s a crime left unsolved.

Unfortunately, Black Riverthe plot of disappoints him. The big reveal, when it comes, isn’t convincing. Nor does it Black River shine any light in the power matrix in Teetarpur village; for a novel set in a northern Indian village, he remains eerily silent about caste. Neither he is emotionally involved with Munia or the other woman killed in the course of the narrative; or insightful about the sexual dynamics in a village. His passion was spent in Delhi.

The writing of Black River it is vivid and lyrical; sometimes to no avail: a worker’s gallows is “anointed” with a thick rope; a cow’s eyes carry “an inarticulate wail.” Characters break into improbable and expansive eloquence (for example, Chand’s employer’s speech at the slaughterhouse). Roy shows remarkable control in the violent scenes, told in the present tense; a sense of dread ripples beneath the surface, not spilling into blood. But as a crime novel, Black River winces from asking the tough questions: poor, noble characters collide with the vulgar rich in a world devoid of moral ambiguity. Even when they commit violence, their moral core remains intact. Hopefully, however, Roy is not done with Delhi – that in future works he will return to the banks of the Yamuna to tell the story of the people of Chand, those who live outside high walls and barbed wire, in the “cracks outside gates”. .

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