Policy analyst Manish Dubey’s A Murder in Gurgaon seeks an unusual setting amid the tall residences of Delhi’s swanky suburb. Here he writes about the Indian crime writing he grew up on, and how Gurgaon, with its testosterone and newfound wealth, is an ideal setting for modern crime writing:
Back when I was growing up in the 80s, Maa was deep into crime fiction. Which meant there was no escaping it at home. Colonel Ranjeet and Surendra Mohan Pathak were all over the house and could be picked up, unlike at friends’ places, without reproach. Guessing games were played through entire episodes of TV shows like Karamchand, the Perry Mason-inspired Barrister Vinod, Apradhi Kaun? and the particularly well-made Jugalbandi. And family chatter, thanks to Mausaji – whose interests squarely matched mother and son’s – inevitably veered toward ‘suspense’ movies. Nobody seemed to tire of discussing the tunnel chase sequence in Raj Sippy’s Inkaar, Danny Denzongpa’s ‘gold medal-winning’ turn as a jealous, wheelchair-bound husband in B.R. Chopra’s Dhund or the many thrilling moments Vijay Anand had strung together in Jewel Thief.
So, A Murder in Gurgaon (AMIG) may have been written in English and set in the present day, it’s been influenced from another time and language. Particularly Pathak, and perhaps his least-known lead character, philosopher-detective and self-proclaimed Dilli ka khaas kism ka harami (‘A special kind of a Delhi bastard’) – Sudhir Kohli. Not far into my first Kohli, I found him crack a tough one, pat his own back and say, ‘Sudhir Kohli, you lucky bastard!’ How could one not be impressed? It’s a different matter that Inspector Ajai Singh, AMIG’s chief protagonist, has none of Kohli’s swagger. Blame the Swedes for that.
In time, there were other rewarding Indian crime writing, including Ray’s Feluda series and Tamil pulp, but the two works that have remained with me are Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Bougainvillea House and Nayana Currimbhoy’s Mrs Timmins’ School for Girls. If AMIG conveys a fraction of their moodiness and menace, there will be reason to celebrate.
Swaminathan is better known for her eminently readable Lalli series now, but Bougainvillea possibly remains her best-crafted work. The neurologically-impaired Clarice Aranxa is dying and her ramblings hint at a sinister, horribly murderous past. Add to that the disturbing reflections on the past from Clarice’s daughters and Doctor Liaquat’s progressively muddling understanding of the ‘case’, and you have a book that is designed – and destined – to leave the reader reeling.
Mrs Timmins’, a murder mystery set in a hill station boarding school, is relatively less complex, but its atmospherics and deceptive pace lift it way above the typical thriller. It’s a pity Currimbhoy hasn’t written fiction again. Crucial to both the books is their setting. Bougainvillea smells of the decaying Portuguese mansion Clarice inhabits while the post-monsoon dankness of Panchgani, where Mrs Timmins’ school is located, adds great texture to its telling.
Gurgaon was the first choice for my own twisted narrative. An economic and real estate boom birthed amidst north Indian machismo, corporate avarice, institutional infirmity and rapid technological change has given rise to a schizophrenic city. Modern and medieval, shiny and squalid, emancipatory and exclusionary, rewarding and exploitative – all at the same time. Violent instincts and testosterone surges, sometimes expressed, sometimes restrained, come with the territory.
There were two other reasons for picking Gurgaon. It’s familiar, it’s home and it was easier to imagine my characters living, killing and dying here. Plus, the two serial adulterers I know vouch for Gurgaon being more fertile hunting ground. ‘People aren’t clingy like in Delhi, yaar, and, oh, so many clubs and groups to meet them in!’ Hmm.