The narrative in this debut novel moves at two distinct levels, from the sublime to the mundane. At one level of storytelling, it engages the reader through delightfully lyrical prose invoking the history and describing Delhi through its ruinous romantic and heroic past. At another, ordinary journalistic prosaic manner is used when exploring the city’s underbelly in contemporary times through the adventures of three cops—DCP Sajan Dayal; Kapoor, with moles everywhere; and lady officer Smita Dhingra as they probe crimes, mop up criminals and carry searches with a sieve from north to south and east to west.
Every crime under the sun or moon in the capital has been brought in to describe the trio’s adventures, and eliminated in an altogether unconvincing manner. The trouble with the otherwise well-written narrative is that there is too much packed in: slumlords, drug peddlers, child lifters, rapists, murderers, cattle thieves, land sharks, builder mafia, call girl and prostitution rackets, finger slicers, Africans, Bangladesh migrants, Northeast Indians as easy prey, general sex, sleaze, political protection.
“Three other members of the union cabinet. One was a drug addict… another a degenerate sex addict who hid his priapism behind the cultured drawl.” There is also the solitary presence of someone with kaffiyehat at the sight of the crime: “Look at these people. A veneer of sophistication, but vulgar to the core.”
Besides, what the metropolis always does, observes the experienced DCP Dayal: “It makes it really easy to survive, provided you are willing to compromise.” More and more shootouts follow before and after every operation as the special investigating team takes little time in solving every puzzle, even though the reader feels the narrative will take him into still black alleyways. Also thrown into the vortex, by self volition, is the mysterious Razia who, according to DCP Dayal, is “the key’ though to what “lock” he does not know.
And when none of the characters is engaged in any investigations that are unfolded in ordinary prose, the author changes gears again making both remorseful as well as philosophical forays into the city’s past and decayed present in a style and language that is at once gripping.
The narrative begins with a promising plotline: the discovery of an affluent young man with a “necklace of fingers” around his neck and moves onto vampires and necropolis and the presence of what is seemingly a mysterious bordering-on-mystical feminine presence. But by the time one moves to the second chapter, it is dust settling down in the country’s crime-infested capital with another crime—the ghastly rape of a girl from the Northeast in a semi-urban set-up: “Delhi isn’t famous for treating its daughters well.”
For his maiden attempt, Avtar Singh decided to leave nothing for a second go at tracing the past and present of a city: “Is there anything that connects us to the past anymore, beyond these few monuments, beyond these bounded and boarded grounds? Dayal’s hand moved with love and compassion over the quiet stones.” A while earlier, stretching the same arena: “He considered the arches he stopped by, smelt the linger trace of older sweat overlaid with the more pungent tang of recent urine.”
The author is a historian, chronicler, watchdog and the novel an over-enthusiastic attempt to have the cake and eat it today…all in one sampling.