Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Necropolis by Avtar Singh: book review

Necropolis by Avtar Singh
-- reviewed by Divya Dubey (publisher, Earthen Lamp Journal)

(Published by Hindustan Times)

The first thing that strikes the reader about Avtar Singh’s novel, Necropolis, is its title – an instant reminder of Jeet Thayil’s highly commended work, Narcopolis, though Thayil’s is an interesting play on the original word. The attempt at similitude is hard to miss. Thayil’s ‘polis’ is the city of Bombay ‘which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face’ and ‘is the hero or heroin of this story’. In Singh’s novel it is Delhi and its criminal underbelly that takes centre stage.

‘This city…,’ says DCP Sajan Dayal, ‘It’s a giant necropolis. Entire developments raised on what used to be graveyards. Old villages gone, fields buried, their soil used for cement.’
But implications of a graveyard-city go further:

‘Djinns are still invoked in Firoz Shah Kotla and in other places […] There are shops in Dariba that have been empty for generations because the jewellers believed they’re cursed. There are mad women on the Ridge and tree spirits in Mehrauli, and during the Uprising, armies dressed in green silk with their swords naked to the air were seen and then disappeared. In daylight.’ [sic]
However, having raised the reader’s expectations through the title, characteristic atmospherics and the introduction of a bewildering Angulimaal in a classic old-Delhi setting, Singh’s narrative falls miles short of meeting them.

In the first chapter the dead body of a twenty-year-old man is discovered next to an old village in Delhi. There is a ‘necklace of fingers’ around his neck. Two gangs of youngsters at war – the Vampires and the Lycans (inspired by Bram Stoker and, more recently, Stephanie Meyer) – form the backdrop of the action, using social networking sites, You Tube, streets and metro stations for their battleground. Their leader – a young man in a kaffiyeh appears mysteriously at the site every time a crime is committed.

DCP Dayal is at the helm of the case, along with his junior colleague, Kapoor, and the smart young IPS officer, Smita Dhingra.

Juxtaposed against Smita is the enigmatic and elusive Razia  of indeterminate age, descended from a string of Razias in the family – a femme fatal figure who wields power over the DCP as much as over ‘Delhi’s own Angulimaal’ whose nemesis she proves to be. Her home is almost a historical monument, being hundreds of years old; her ancestors are said to have been traitors to the cause of the 1857 revolt, and she herself appears and disappears at will – sometimes a clubber, sometimes a socialite, sometimes a minister’s adjunct, occasionally an admirer of Ghalib’s poetry. Except that she fails to create the same impact as Fowler’s Sarah Woodruff or Capote’s Holly Golightly. Rather, she comes across as an insipid two-dimensional character – more aggravating than impressive, lacking equally psychological and emotional depth. Most of the scenes featuring her sudden materialization and attempts at coquetry seem contrived and lacklustre.

Characters such as Dayal, Kapoor and Smita are well drawn. Singh also brings several recent real-life issues in Delhi to the fore, the effort amply facilitated by his journalistic background. For instance, the various cases the three police officers investigate include, besides a psycho collecting human digits, a rape case (the question of north-eastern women living in the capital), the murder of an African drug dealer and his girlfriend (matters of racism), and the kidnapping of a three-year-old from an extremely affluent family (intimidation or perhaps a political gambit).
Singh’s engagement with these issues though, remains surface-level. This novel is not an ode to Delhi; it is in fact an exposé.

As DCP Dayal tells Smita while tracking down a criminal:
‘Delhi has always been a fertile ground for societies of all sorts […] They band together with men and women they think they have something in common with […] Agglomerations of men and a few women who perceive their pasts and futures in the same terms. Invitation only, closed to the rest of the world, their workings inscrutable. They’re secret societies, Smita. But nobody says so, because everybody wants in.’

Avtar Singh
While they manage to capture rapists and hunt down murderers, the kidnapping case is forced to close before the architect of the crime has been caught. It upsets the idealist in Smita, but the two senior policemen acknowledge that one of the restraining factors of being in their job is that there are certain crimes the corridors of power would rather not have them solve.
It is interesting that this novel has appeared amongst a slew of Delhi-centric books this year, including Rana Dasgupta’s Capital.

A cross between genre fiction and a literary work, this novel manages complete justice to neither. The different cases lack proper substance, depth and intensity crucial for an interesting piece of fiction; plots are sketchy, climaxes flop. The author’s knowledge of Delhi’s history combined with his awareness of its contemporary scene could have translated into a work of far greater value than it actually does. At times turgid prose fraught with convoluted constructions can be rather tedious, though certain metaphors do stand out.

Overall, it elicits a lukewarm response from the reader. 

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