Writer-filmmaker Piyush Jha on his new book “Compass Box Killer” and the social underpinning of crime fiction
Quite early in Piyush Jha’s “Compass Box Killer”, we meet Inspector Virkar at the seedy Lotus Bar, sipping his favourite Godfather beer. In the background, a father is reunited after three years with his 16-year-old daughter, who now sings at the bar. Unhappy with her job for reasons entirely imaginable, she asks her father to take her back. A few bouncers swing into action, but step back when Virkar intervenes. To defuse the situation, Sadhu Anna, the owner of the bar, comes out, and tries to lure the inspector first with crates of his favourite beer, and then threatens him with his contacts in the police. When both fail, he asks Virkar with a sneering helplessness, “Why are you behaving like a filmy hero?”
“This is a filmy situation,” retorts Virkar, referring to the events that have just taken place. He could have been speaking of the novel as a whole.
“Compass Box Killer” is as unapolegetically filmy as “Mumbaistan”, the writer-filmmaker’s popular debut collection of three novellas set in Mumbai. It follows the cop on his chase of a seemingly motiveless serial killer who has been termed the ‘compass box killer’ by an overzealous media. Although dogged and studious in his pursuit, Virkar is often pinned into a corner by the media’s demands for swift justice for the bodies piling up. He finds an unlikely ally in Raashi, an intrepid reporter, in his quest, which takes him through Khandala and Belgaum and deposits him in the middle of a sinister conspiracy.
“He is a conflicted and complex character who believes in justice but doesn’t mind twisting things around a little bit to reach it,” the author says, calling Virkar’s character the starting point of the novel. The character has been detailed richly, with a convincing backstory, great investigating skills and a predilection for Marathi one-liners.
Interestingly, the novel is told from the points of view of Virkar and the serial killer. “For any hero to stand out the adversary has to be stronger and more interesting than him. We appreciate a hero only when he goes against a very intelligent and formidable adversary. And if you are invested in that adversary, then the hero’s success becomes that much sweeter. So it is my attempt that you get totally involved in the adversary also,” the author says.
The novel obeys the conventions of a crime thriller, with the killer always one step ahead of the cop. There are the customary twists and turns and a femme fatale is also thrown in for good measure. “I love crime fiction. I have read all the great international crime fiction writers… With the success of ‘Mumbaistan’ and ‘Compass Box Killer’ coming out I feel I am advancing within this genre and perhaps making it bigger and expanding it for others to come in. Although it exists in Hindi and regional languages, it is a non-existent genre in English,” Jha says, with a hint of exaggeration.
According to him, the purpose of the genre goes beyond vicarious thrills. “Crime fiction is about the good and bad of society and where it is going…I am making a social commentary and I have woven a crime story around it. I do this in my films also. In Sikandar my attempt was to focus attention on the children of Kashmir. I could have done it by making a documentary. But I wrote a story around the social situation…”
The transition from novellas to a novel wasn’t much of a challenge for the writer who likes to “mix it up”, but “keeping the interest going and not letting it flag” became an important concern with the novel, he admits. Through this change, the choice of setting is constant — the underbelly of Mumbai. According to Jha, “There are many layers of Mumbai. The Bandras and the Juhus are seen and talked about a lot, but Mumbai has got so much more than that. The underbelly is extremely fascinating for me. If you go there you can see what was, what could have been and what can be.”