Dirty secrets in a seedy city

CITY OF DEATH

Author: Abheek Barua

Publisher: Juggernaut

Price: Rs 399

Pages: 263

At a literary event in Bengaluru earlier this year, Zac O'Yeah rued that there were very few contemporary Indians writing mysteries. The Swedish-origin writer now settled in India is the acclaimed author of Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru and Hari: A Hero for Hire, both of which comfortably straddle comedy and mystery. He advised Indian writers to emulate their Scandinavian counterparts and write more mysteries and crime fiction. The recent flurry of mystery and detective novels indicate that Indian writers have taken the advice to heart. Abheek Barua, Chief Economist at HDFC Bank and a Business Standard columnist, has joined their ranks.

His debut novel is a murder mystery - more in the tradition of the hard-boiled American crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s than Agatha Christie. The detective is Sohini Sen, a frustrated 40-something, depressive, manipulative, mild alcoholic police officer who, after cooling her heels in an auxiliary branch of the force, is called in to investigate the murder of Ahona Chatterjee. All murders are gruesome, but this one particularly so, with a beheading. Her sidekick is Arjun Sinha, who is himself fighting monsters of losing his family in an accident. The perfect team for the tough investigation in the seedy city - obviously Kolkata, but never named as such for some inexplicable reason.

Soon enough, the reader is introduced to a series of characters, each with its little dirty secret: the overindulgent father, the depressive mother, the sex addict brother, the lover with a violent past. The narrative usually proceeds at a brisk pace most of the time, but the back stories for each that Barua uses to punctuate the story - though interesting as standalone pieces - can often act as unnecessary digressions, diluting the tension so essential in whodunits. Barua's choice of using the present tense, reminiscent of Hillary Mantel's, is curious, though it provides the tale with an urgent immediacy.

Crimes are, of course, social phenomena, requiring laws that can be violated. The brooding, atmospheric tableau that Barua paints is reminiscent of Saradindu Bandopadhyay's Byomkesh Bakshi novels. In this amoral environment, the only kind of killer is one who murders for the sake of it: much like the protagonist of Anurag Kashyap's recent Raman Raghav 2.0 - but to a Kolkata native such as me, it also brings back memories of the Stoneman murders of 1989.

There are two things one must mention to complete this overview. First, of course, is the change in the title of the novel. When it was serialised in the Juggernaut application, it was called The Beheading. Curiously, in hardcover, it is called City of Death. The author and the publisher are perhaps the only ones who can unveil this mystery, but if I were to offer a deduction, it would be this: The book is, after all, not just about one beheading. There are, in fact, two; and an attempted third. But more importantly, it is about a dying city (as Kolkata has often been called) and its denizens, who are more zombies or feral beings than humans. Death is the metaphor for this urban landscape.

The other thing I wanted to discuss is the application itself. I had started reading the book on it, before getting the hardcopy. It is a very interesting experiment: as Juggernaut highlights, the text on the app is not just a reproduction of the print files, as many e-books are, but designed to appeal to the reader. The idea of serialising the books also harks back to the glorious 19th century tradition. For a page turner, it might be the perfect solution, but is it suitable for a longer text that requires more attention and engagement?

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