An interesting storyline, with a murder mystery, that needed a much better editor.
If a book can make you look at things in a new way, it may just succeed above and beyond the call. So what if it isn’t scintillating writing, or a slice of unforgettable noir, or contain that delicious moment when you mentally grapple with an anti-hero you realise you’ve come to love? You can still be jolted out of a blinkered vision.
Anyone who lives in India has seen the Po-liss as perpetrators: of ill-will, no sympathy and worse manners. It doesn’t help that before you see their cold eyes, you see their protruding bellies. Now Anita Nair, being a chronicler of the times, gives you both these things in her lead persona, yet she manages to imbue negative characteristics with hope for the future. Alas, only in fiction, of course. Because if you are ever in trouble, you would call a thug friend, pray to your God or yell ‘Mummy!’ but you would never ring (I was about to say 911) for an Indian policeman.
Until you meet Inspector Borei Gowda. Derivative he may be, but he still manages to shine a light on a might-have-been you wish was: a cop you can trust.
In fact, Bangalore also gets its moment in the sun, although I have always thought of it as a poseur, but it certainly would give any of us who have lived here for decades no small amount of frisson recognising places that serve as the backdrop to a serial killer’s mania. Inspector Gowda has been called in to investigate the death of a male prostitute. He soon discovers that there is a recurring MO, more bodies and a killer whose worldview is not the only thing in doubt; his sexual orientation may be the key to the murders and his own identity.
There are other things on the reader’s mind before the whodunit takes off, however. What does Cut Like Wound mean? Is there a hyphen missing? An indefinite article? Is it a vernacular phrase used by the Underworld? The first victim screams after his skull cracks open; is that even possible? And when first meeting the good Inspector, I didn’t know if I could empathise with someone whose “loneliness gnawed at him with piranha teeth”.
It’s an interesting storyline, with lowlifes, skewed family relationships, office dynamics all intertwined with, as they say, a murder mystery. You can have some fun with that; then there’s the rest of it. There are, for instance, too many words when less is more, unless you’re Joyce. The mandatory hapless subordinate, here SI Santosh, after a run-in with Gowda’s acerbic tongue, asks himself “Was Gowda naturally obnoxious or did he have to work hard at it?” The tongue only tries to be acerbic, by the way. Gowda’s idea of witty repartee is questioning his boss’ taste in wall photos.
But I laughed out loud reading about Gowda staring at name badges to remember his colleagues’ names and then doing it unthinkingly with a woman. It’s only when she glares back at him that the words “sexual harassment” go off in his brain and for once, Gowda retreats from something in real fear.
Perhaps Nair should try a comic novel next because she does have a sense of humour peeping up like a shy debutante not quite sure of her reception at the ball. When she says something about people who wouldn’t recognise a pun “if it stood before them with a tea cosy on its head, waving its arms”, or how Indian epics are like movie changes, or introduces the reader to the ingenious Biryani method of torture, you may think the only problem with this novel is the shocking absence of an editor. The dialogues are often stilted, with that enemy to veracity, the use of full form where apostrophes are necessary, like ‘it is’, ‘I am’ which need to read ‘it’s’ and ‘I’m’. That’s the way people talk, why would you change it when writing it down?
Nair can be unintentionally funny, though. She talks of the ‘piazza’ at UB City which is a real-life food court. The only ‘piazza’ thing about it is if you’re on LSD, reading the name Toscano (one of the restaurants there) and hallucinating that a kinder Fate than yours had transported you to Italy.
Santosh’s inner monologue on the city sputters. It’s meant to give you an insight into a subterranean world that seethes with the dispossessed and the broken, instead it is weak in intent and execution. Spoiler Alert: even when Santosh is dealt a potential death blow, Nair saves him. Death works in fiction as an emotional trigger much better than an author’s kind-hearted attempt at salvation, just ask the scriptwriters for The Champ or even Denny’s exit in Grey’s Anatomy.
Nair also falls prey to the problem that plagues most Indian writers, (although there’s a very serious EL James-like one out there and more power to Abha Dawesar): she avoids sex scenes — and here she’s trying to depict adultery and the lives of eunuchs and paedophiles.
Gowda, meanwhile, reminds me too much, and too little, of my great fictional crush, Harry Hole. His angst, his anti-social stance, his uncomfortable insights into human nature; in the hands of Jo Nesbo, the detective becomes legendary; Borei Gowda remains as small-town as the city he lives in. Nair also gives the standard quirks to her detective with his rum and his Bullet, following faithfully the formula set by Holmes’ pipe, Colombo’s crumpled raincoat, Horatio Caine’s sunglasses and Mike Hammer’s Fedora.
Still, I passed by an Inspector on MG Road yesterday and I gave him a second look.
Cut Like Wound; Anita Nair, Harper Collins, Rs.299.