Art & Culture

How noir breeds in Delhi's 'hawa-paani'

Arpita Das
Arpita DasMay 30, 2015 | 14:50

How noir breeds in Delhi's 'hawa-paani'

Both my parents have their favourite noir tales of Delhi. My father's is set in Lodi Gardens back in the days when he was a student in Hindu College. One full moon night as he was walking through the park, he heard a child crying. On looking around, he saw a little girl in a white frock under a frangipani, with her face bent and her arms resting on her knees. As he went closer to find out if he could help her in any way, he lost sight of the clearing under the tree where she was seated for a moment, and when he drew nearer, he found she was gone!



My mother's most chilling Delhi story is about a day when she and her little sister accompanied their government-employed father to a refugee camp temporarily set up near Red Fort. This was soon after Partition, the city was in turmoil, and my grandfather had to check on some Muslim families who were to get safe passage to Pakistan. As the girls followed their father through the camp, a woman grabbed my aunt and wouldn't let go of her. Even as the child was pried out of her arms, the woman repeated over and over again, "Meri beti hai; uss raat uttha le gaye the" (That's my daughter; they took her that night).

Delhi is not new to noir, neither is noir unfamiliar to Delhi - the two have traversed generations hand in hand. And like the memories and imaginations of its inhabitants, the literature of the city is also testimony to it. Call it a walk on the dark side, noir or gothica - books set in Delhi are full of it, and have been for a long time. Perhaps, it has something to do with the four defining events that characterise this city, four scenes of carnage - mutiny, Partition, Emergency and 1984; or perhaps, it is just in the "hawa-pani" of this city, as they used to say in the days of yore. Is it any wonder though that a city built over innumerable graveyards is also home to noirish narratives? Here are my favourite Delhi noir titles.


In Avtar Singh's gripping recent novel, Necropolis, ghouls and alleged vampires represent the element of urban noir. But noir is not just a genre of ghouls, it is also about the living who have been all but for-gotten. One of the finest Delhi novels to recreate a world of forgotten individuals was Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day (1980), also a superb example of sheer Delhi gothica. A decrepit old house by the river houses a brother and a sister who have allowed their home and life to be overrun by memories, apparitions and decay. Reminiscing about the days after Partition which changed life irretrievably, the book creates a suffocating atmosphere full of dread and the need to escape.


Dread is indeed an important ingredient of the noir genre and Nirmal Verma's 1989 novel Raat ka Reporter is replete with it. Set in the time of Emergency, its protagonist Rishi goes running through empty streets in the morning and spends lonely, insomniac nights in his room, even as he slips into a morass of Kafkaesque paranoia. The book is now also available in a superb English translation by Alok Bhalla, titled Dark Dispatches.


This dread-inducing urban miasma often erupts into open violence, in reality, and in books depicting such reality. Indira Goswami's award-winning novel translated as Pages Stained in Blood, which was serialised in the Assamese literary journal Goriyoshi in the 1990s, brings to life the brutal anti-Sikh riots of Delhi in 1984. The narrator visits various riot-affected areas of Delhi interviewing survivors and recording their blood-soaked narrations. Her companion is a Sikh rickshaw-puller to whom she feels intensely sexually attracted. The dispossessed of the city are the narrator's primary preoccupation even as she is drawn into the bloodlust of the city which will spare no one.

A story called "The Beresfords" in Ambarish Satwik's Perineum (2007) about the rape and massacre of a British family in Old Delhi even as the mutineers swarm the city looking for firangis on May 11, 1857, is another such dark tale of violence. It gave me sleepless nights for days after I read the book, and brought home the intensity of the carnage that must have visited the city during subsequent events like Partition and the riots of 1984.

Akhil Sharma's award-winning 2000 novel, An Obedient Father, is a tale of a different kind of violence and violation. A corrupt, morally bankrupt civil servant is the monstrous main protagonist of a wrenching tale of poverty, sexual exploitation and emptiness set again in the time of Emergency in Delhi.


Delhi noir is at its most potent, however, when it is about those who live on the margins of the city, the invisible ones. Way back in 1955, Manto's Kaali Shalwar introduced us to one such marginalised character in Delhi. A sex worker called Sultana moves to Delhi only to find herself lonely and isolated in a brutally indifferent big city. The book was made into a film called Kaali Salwar in 2002 starring Irrfan, Kay Kay Menon, Vrajesh Hirjee, and Sadiya Siddiqui as Sultana.

My last but perhaps most favourite composition in this genre is Uday Prakash's 2001 book Dilli ki Deewar in which smack addicts and sex workers living in a 16th century ruin set the stage for those who go missing from the city any given day, no questions asked. Like Raat ka Reporter, this is a Delhi of the wandering insomniac, a city rife with anxiety and a general "bad" feeling. Ramnivas, a safai karmchari or cleaner in the employ of the local government finds a secret cavity in a wall of a plush Saket gym filled with crores of rupees. As he begins to help himself to what is clearly someone's ill-gotten gains, things go well for him for a while before it all begins to catch up with him till one day, he just disappears. Employing a tone that alternates between realism and satire, Prakash paints an unforgiving picture of the sheer dereliction of the city's poor. For them to act on the aspirations of the privileged middle class can only bring disaster.

If the 2010 anthology called Delhi Noir and the deluge of titles belonging to the genre following its publication are anything to go by, with the ever-yawning chasm between its nightclub-thronging rich and the sleepless-in-the-streets-poor, and widely reported honour killings and gang rapes, the noir machine of Delhi is alive and well.

Last updated: May 30, 2015 | 14:50
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