Why I set my crime fiction in the Northeast
Outwardly, things may look fine, but the rot is within.
- Total Shares
The books I’ve written have always been grounded in reality. In that sense, the only thing “invented” in them is the plot, without which of course a crime or thriller novel doesn’t function. The events that propel the action forward are almost always based on real-life happenings. Which is perhaps why real life sometimes seems to mimic the fiction.
In The Girl From Nongrim Hills (2013), a small-time crook and his gang masquerading as militants are wiped out by the police on the orders of a minister just before the assembly elections, after the unfortunates have outlived their usefulness for the minister in the state’s coal belt. Just before the Meghalaya elections this year, an elusive militant commander who’d evaded the security forces in the Garo Hills region for several years was neutralized in somewhat dubious circumstances; he and his group were involved in extortion from the coal trade.
Then again, in my new book More Bodies Will Fall (2018), the third in the Detective Arjun Arora series, a key driver of the plot is the trade in methamphetamine (besides heroin and gold) from Myanmar through Manipur to other parts of the country. On April 2, almost 37kg of meth tablets (3.2 lakh in number) were recovered from the hidden compartment of a bus in Manipur’s Khudengthabi, not far from the Myanmar border.
More Bodies Will Fall; Penguin Random House
Some people might say I’m reinforcing stereotypes, or trying to sell misery. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have always had an interest in the dark side of human affairs, in people who go off the tracks for whatever reasons. Somewhere along the line that morphed into writing crime novels — though how interesting the books are I shall leave to my readers to judge — and crime, like love, is a universal topic.
A crime novel is a useful way to explore various strata in society and the resulting fault lines, regardless of where that society may be: affluent Norway, corrupt Nigeria, overcrowded India, and even our own Northeast. It is not a term I’m too fond of, the Northeast, but one I have to use (Would a writer from Delhi like to be described as a north Indian writer?).
The detective series started with Dead Meat, with a chopped-up body being burnt in a tandoor oven (again, based on a real-life incident) somewhere in Delhi, but the northeast is present in the book as well, in the form of the half-Nepali half-Punjabi Arjun Arora who grew up in small towns around the Northeast on account of his father’s job with a construction company. Arora is an insider in the Northeast, but an outsider as well, and destined to remain one, and so his knowledge and love of the Northeast has a bittersweet tinge to it.
For a long time, only the small occasional story from the Northeast would appear in the national media: floods, militant attacks, bandhs. Out of sight and out of mind. There is more interest in the Northeast now, more travellers from the rest of India coming here, and more space for stories. But here too the new gaze is selective and subjective: the Northeast is now an untouched, pristine land — that, or issues which seem to tick larger boxes: migration from Bangladesh, the rise of certain political parties, vanishing tribal practices.
What is missing is an awareness of what decades of central doles, without any effort at greater revenue generation by the states themselves, has led to, what the lack of jobs has led to: politicians who get into the game to increase assets for themselves and their relatives, the common man be damned, politics as a game involving getting one’s hands on the funds coming from Delhi.
This can especially be seen in some of the hill states of the Northeast, where certain circumstances have led to small communities being flooded with money, so much so that their simple societies, with no means of handling such situations, have turned upside down. Outwardly, things may look fine, but the rot is within. As populations increase, in remote areas activities such as logging, mining, poaching, and extortion become the only way of earning a living for some.
In the north bank region of Assam (the area above the Brahmaputra) there was an unofficial policy since the 1962 war not to push ahead with infrastructure and industry, something which has been reversed only in the last decade or so. No wonder it led to this area being home to one of the highest rates of trafficking in the country (floods and riots are also responsible for this). Then there is the outmigration for jobs elsewhere in India, simply because there are no jobs at home, and the handful of government posts require contacts and payments, if not both.
Natural resources have been decimated (there is a well-oiled trade in forest products, timber, sand and stones from rivers, coal from upper Assam), even as the Northeast as a whole is more and more dependent on foodstuffs from the rest of the country. All of this may sound depressing, but it is only by looking at what is going wrong that one can begin to think of how things can be remedied.
And what better instrument than crime fiction to tell us what has gone wrong?
(Ankush Saikia’s new novel More Bodies Will Fall is out now from Penguin Random House India.)