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Exploring the Delhi Underbelly

October 2009
Exploring the Delhi Underbelly

Here is a book that Delhi’s tourism officials won’t be eager to publicize. However, visitors or residents shouldn’t hesitate to pick up Delhi Noir, a story collection that’s part of the terrific noir series put out by New York-based Akashic Books.

‘Noir,’ as defined by Merriam-Webster’s, is crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings. Delhi Noir, then, is a book version of film noir, and appropriately, the prose teems with cinematic details that conjure up seedy locales and shady characters you wouldn’t care to invite into your home. A few plots may seem too convoluted, but the narrative seldom loses its crackling energy and dark humorous bite.

Three popular slogans found around Delhi—“With You, For You, Always,” “Youngistan” and “Walled City, World City”—are used as titles for the sections. Among the established authors included are Irwin Allan Sealy, Tabish Khair and Manjula Padmanabhan. Some of the strongest tales are from younger writers such as Siddharth Choudhury, Omair Ahmad, Radhika Jha and Palash Krishna Mehrotra. Ahmad and Chowdhury, incidentally, are on the long list for the 2009 Man Asian Prize.

Stories by New Yorkers Mohan Sikka, Meera Nair and Hirsh Sawhney (who edited the anthology) have also found a place here, given their extensive knowledge of Delhi. With the exception of Uday Prakash, whose story was translated from Hindi, the contributors write in English. Nevertheless, there is a generous sprinkling of Punjabi and Urdu words to spice up the prose and convey a vivid sense of what it’s like to be in this gritty city.

“Together [the stories] give you an alternative map to the city, one that doesn’t shy away from its strident flaws and yet also sheds light on beauty in overlooked corners and conversations,” writes Sawney in the introduction, adding, “Non-Indian readers will be unfamiliar with many of the names in this book, which will hopefully offer them a rare taste of a different type of Indian writing: literature that fascinates simply because it’s well written—not exotic.”

Authors Ruchir Joshi, Nalinaksha Bhattacharya and Hartosh Singh Bal round out the volume, which takes us from the popular Lodhi Gardens and Jantar Mantar to well-known Delhi University, and from upscale Defence Colony and middle-class R. K. Puram to a bus terminal and even an ashram.

Akashic’s Noir series has come a long way since the first book, Brooklyn Noir, came out in 2004. Numerous cities in the world have already been covered, and among the forthcoming titles is Mumbai Noir, edited by Altaf Tyrewala, who wrote an acclaimed debut novel called No God in Sight.

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