The best part of Ankush Saikia’s The Girl From Nongrim Hills is its pace. By the last one third of the novel the reader is hurtling down the lanes and bylanes of Shillong, climbing up hills and reaching the outskirts of the city, as layer after layer of the story unravels to create a tight, textured and nuanced plot. Yet, it is how the book ends that leaves you with a smile at the confidence of the storyteller in his craft.
Bok is a guitarist in a Shillong-based local band. His brother Kitdor messes up an arms deal in Dimapur sponsored by a militant group from Guwahati and loses `50 lakh. The militants who had supplied him the money give the family a deadline: return the money or lose Kitdor after a week. Bok has one week to raise the funds. He meets Christine after a local gig. She lures him with the promise of the money he needs. They get entwined in a thrilling chase. The plot is genre fiction but where Saikia’s work stands out is in understanding how these plots are constructed, following the rules, and completely localising all aspects of the story to bring it alive in the North East. Through a crime thriller Saikia opens another door to understanding the land still in part recovering from insurgency and where peace is making a cautious return.
The way London has had its Russian oligarchs and Saudi oil princes and Indian businessmen, Shillong had its coal barons and contractors and politicians, from across the state and the North Eastern regions, only on a smaller scale.
Saikia brings to light this shadow area and he by turning things around a bit: making an adversary of someone who is typically the bait in such stories, ascribing motives that have to do with the personal but are deeply rooted in the socio-political reality of the people and land, not hiding anything, and not looping the story. Saikia notices that not much has changed from when insurgency started there: it still has its tourists who eat their gram from paper funnels and the migrant labour that comes in from Bangladesh but claims to be Indian Muslim. The novel’s social depth comes from Saikia’s taking upon himself to fill the vacuum created from a region where: progress had been made, but there was rarely someone to record what had been lost.
The novel also benefits from its characters—completely human in their strengths and weaknesses. Bok is pushed into a tight spot but he keeps fighting with his wits, using his deficient but reliable resources. Nobleson, the politician who owns coal mines, is willing to pay for his seat with a bigger national party, but remains in touch with the common people by coming down to their homes and talking to them. The Naga musician who avoids going back home, the government servant drummer of the band, the parents who do not get along with their children. This not-larger-than-life feel of the book anchors the crime fiction and makes it believably real.
The trickiest part of a crime fiction is how the writer employs co-incidence or plausibility in the narrative thread. Saikia links the story well. Of course, they cannot be fully organic to a crime story but they do not read like implants either. In terms of mood of the action Saikia makes good use of lines from western numbers but it is the bleak atmosphere that holds the action and sets the motive of the crime: to get away and start a new life for myself. This place, the North east, it holds too many bad memories for me.
The Girl From Nongrim Hills makes for a good quick read, preferably in a single sitting. The novel does justice to Kurt Vonnegut’s rules of writing but could have gained with some black humour. While his characters are rich, Saikia can look forward to making them more round as he perfects what he has begun with this novel: how the complex realities of Indian lands can be told through genre fiction and not only non-fiction and literary fiction.