By Elen Turner
Necropolis by Avtar Singh, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2014. 268 pages.
Avtar Singh’s Necropolis is very different from a lot of English-language fiction currently emerging from India, a major strength of the novel. Part detective fiction, part literary, and incorporating much history and vampire imagery, Necropolis straddles various literary worlds.
Taking it as a mystery/crime thriller, it would be best not to give away too much of the plot in this review, as it is this that pulls the reader along. It opens with a murder—one in a string of murders—suspected to have been carried out by Delhi’s youth gangs. DCP Dayal and officers Kapoor and Smita Dhingra are on the case, and the novel follows their search for the killers. Further crimes occur, parallel or connected to the opening murder, including the killing of an African immigrant, the rape of a woman from the north-east of India and the kidnapping of a young boy from a wealthy family.
Each of these cases raises serious social problems in India—and in Delhi more specifically—which is where Necropolis becomes more than ‘just’ a crime story. The often-under-acknowledged racism of urban Indian society comes through in the treatment of the African immigrant and north-eastern migrant woman. Especially astute is Singh’s class commentary on Delhi society. Yet his critique is wry and often amusing, lighter in tone—although certainly not in substance—than much social commentary that occurs in contemporary Indian literature. One of the suspects of one of the crimes is what could be called nouveau riche, possessing plenty of money and trying very hard to be tasteful, but without a family pedigree, will never be considered the elite of this city of old money. Smita meets his wife:
“a pleasant-faced woman dressed incongruously in designer sweats, the maker’s name spelt out on her capacious backside. […] She looked like what she probably was, a nice middle-class woman with a comfortable education and a young child and another or two or three probably on the way. Twenty years ago, twenty kilometres away, she’d be sitting in a courtyward with her sari over her head. But she’s here now, thought Smita. With sequins on her ass.”
In straddling various genres, Necropolis also tries to do a great deal with its characters, and this is perhaps its weakest point. While all of the protagonists and supporting characters are believable, three-dimensional people, we do not get to know them as deeply as we might if there were fewer of them sharing the stage. This does not have to be taken as a criticism, as readers familiar with genre fiction may be more at ease with this. However, for a work of literary fiction the spread of characters—particularly in what is not an especially long novel—may be unsatisfying.
Singh creates atmosphere expertly, however. The novel’s sense of noir doesn’t end with the title. The tone of the interactions between characters is quiet yet hides dramatic undertones that exude mystery in both their imagery and their content. The impression is created that much of the action is happening on a dark, foggy (although most of it is not). Much is divulged through dialogue—plot, a sense of place—but it is carefully-crafted and natural conversation. Smita and the DCP are discussing Mehrauli, an ancient part of the city now on its outskirts, filled with crumbling ruins, and the scene of one of the crimes:
“‘It was the capital of the Rajpur kingdom that preceded the Sultanate of Delhi. When the first Sultans came, it became their capital as well. That’s why the Qutb Minar is here.’
Smita nodded, her face turned towards the DCP’s as it darkened and lightened between the glows of the streetlamps that illuminated their passage into Mehrauli.
‘Its accoutrements are all urban. It has all the markings of an imperial capital. A Jama Masjid for the people. A reservoir to provide water in bad times. A place for kings to have their graves. Step-wells for their courtiers. Homes for their merchants and their wives and slaves. This was the heart of Delhi before the rest of the world knew there was such a thing.’”
Other reviews of this novel have pointed out the title’s similarity to Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, suggesting that—or perhaps even accusing—Singh is somehow trying to ride upon Thayil’s shirttails of success. The novels are, however, extremely different in genre, content, style and substance, and the only worthwhile connection that should be made is that Necropolis is as strongly situated in Delhi as Narcopolis was in Bombay, and can be enjoyed as one among many portraits of a city that is as beautiful and it is sinister.
Kitaab’s Assistant Managing Editor Elen Turner is a Western New York-based editor and writer. She has a PhD from the Australian National University; her thesis looked at the contemporary Indian feminist publishing industry. Literature from South Asia is her specific area of interest, and she works for Kathmandu-based Himal Southasian magazine.