Ever since I renounced cosmopolitan life for a middle-of-nowhere-beach-type-of-existence, portraitures of cities in novels or nonfiction have increasingly become my preferred mode for experiencing a city. Delhi, a place I’ve always been intrigued with despite its megalomaniacal tendencies, has been getting a lot of mileage lately with a spate of books offering salaams to the capital, indicating that it may have finally ousted Mumbai as India’s most favoured literary locale.
For Somnath Batabyal, who worked in Delhi as a journalist for over a decade, the city is ‘massive’—not just in size, but in impact. He arrived as a seventeen-year-old from Guwahati, and on his first day at Hansraj College, saw a man playing guitar for an extremely beautiful woman. “I thought I’d landed in Paris!” His love affair with the city deepened when he realised he was actually a good student. He topped the college and became a crime reporter. Soon followed first love, first flat…. Next thing he was hanging out with politicians and policemen, experiencing the city in a way only true insiders can—by districts—knowing what kind of crimes happen where, which station house officer might have a story, and what it’s like to be on a mission to recover a kidnapped boy. Many of his experiences have worked their way into his first novel, The Price You Pay (HarperCollins)—a pacy, thrilling read, which exposes the intoxicating nexus between journalism, government and the law.
Young Abhishek Dutta, the protagonist of Somnath’s story, stumbles into a job at the Express, and quickly works his way up the media food chain from print to TV. Other than the shared Bengali element, and the small-town-boy arriving in big-town trajectory, Somnath insists the character isn’t autobiographical. This is a classic coming-of-age story of a young man making his way in the world, but it is timely as well—offering a panoramic view of how stories are manufactured, controlled and reported in India’s capital. It hints at the effects of 24x7 news on the equations of power within the newsroom and outside of it, and on the changing dimensions of journalistic Truth.
My favourite passage in The Price You Pay is a simple conversation between two men, which functions as a perfect metaphor for an avatar of emerging India. “ ‘My parents feel that the coming of the Maruti car changed Delhi in the ‘80s,’ Mayank told Abhishek. ‘My father is emphatic that it took away the stability of the Ambassador and the Fiat with a flimsiness that, over time, started to reflect in us.’ ”
Somnath, like me, a renouncer of sorts, has since traded in a life of crime reportage in Delhi for a quieter, academic London existence. He’s still a news junky (currently obsessed, with what else? The upcoming Indian elections—“I’m interested in the coverage of what it means to be a democracy… the political economy of elections and election as spectacle”), and he still keeps a pied-à-terre in Delhi to ensure eternal return. On his travelling bookshelf you will find Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Also, Dickens, Thackeray, Maugham, Forster… “America did not win the postcolonial war in my mind,” he says. “I did wear Calvin Klein jeans and I did read Catch-22, but I still love English literature.”
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.