March 30, 2023


Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Book Review: Tears of The Dragon by Ankush Saikia

7 min read

Varsha Tiwary reviews Tears of the Dragon by Ankush Saikia (Speaking Tiger, 2023) that offers all the staple comforts of a quintessentially Indian whodunit.

Having ploughed through the entire oeuvre of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes in my youth, I am hard put to remember any of their intricate and excellent plots today. What remains in memory are images and characters brought to life in a few deft lines. The realization that in hands of a good storyteller, words convert to image, acquiring magical staying power because the reader imagines them in her mind.

Holmes walking through lamp lit foggy London nights and hailing hansom cabs. Old women with vials of arsenic. Cold English countryside. First class train compartment, plush libraries with fireplaces. Poirot nodding his egg-shaped head, twirling his waxed moustache. Christmas puddings. A frequently flustered Miss Marple knitting pink mittens. Kitchens with kippers and ham for breakfast. Nightcaps. Sparkling cyanide. Old stone houses with cypress trees. And always, a body, dramatically dead. 

Ankush Saikia’s latest Arjun Arora mystery, Tears of the Dragon offers all the staple comforts of a quintessentially Indian whodunit.

The reader’s suspense is laced with the comforting knowledge that a capable, manly (and vain) detective is at hand, to set things right. Interestingly, the female detectives give an appearance of being incapable, and hence easily fool the culprit. Miss Marple, for example, comes across as a weak, fluffy, scattered elderly lady.

Ankush Saikia’s latest Arjun Arora mystery, Tears of the Dragon offers all the staple comforts of a quintessentially Indian whodunit. A sleuth driving on Delhi roads, who worries about parking, strategically uses the metro, gets caught in traffic jams on humid as hell evenings, is stuck on a seat next to a bawling baby on a flight to Kolkata.

Recovering from a previous injury, Detective Arjun Arora is now investigating the mysterious death of a pharmaceutical executive, who on a tour to Mumbai, is found dead in a canal in Kolkata. The time is just after the elections in 2014, and the ex-army man turned detective, based in Delhi’s CR Park, runs Nexus, an agency in GK, whose staple assignments are corporate surveillance, matrimonial inquiries, elopements etc. The detective is an alcoholic and a chain smoker, has a troubled relationship with his dying father. Darker shades of moral ambiguity in his personality remain unmitigated by a match-making mother, a friendly ex-wife, a much-loved daughter.

In the opening pages, he casually guns down a man he suspects of trying to kill him. The planning and erasing of evidence come to him as easily as nipping in some Blender’s Pride in his cup of tea. When a sexy journalist he is interested in, agrees to come over to his flat for orange liqueur, instead of getting intimate, they end up fighting because Arjun scoffs at a TV panelist calling out Hindu terrorism. It’s they who plant bombs, he says. Incensed at this blockheaded stand, the woman walks off. Arjun doesn’t bother to turn back or see her out.  

The investigation has Arora connecting the dots of the shadowy world of exotic wildlife smugglers, all the way from North-east India and Kolkata to Shanghai. A nimble storyteller, Saikia is adept at weaving a pattern of intrigue through fragments of narrative jumping across cities, countries, and continents—from London, to Assam, to Bangkok to China to Kolkata in just a few pages. In just a couple of paragraphs of description of place and people, he evokes loneliness, intrigue, fear. 

The pleasure of reading Tears of the Dragon lies in the way it illuminates the society it is set in, the Indian Society, where no matter how progressive the family, a daughter’s announcement of a boyfriend sends the parents in an anxious tizzy. And especially when he is a Kashmiri, and a Muslim. Yes, Arjun Arora, like a good Indian father, keeps tabs on his daughter’s boyfriend, and his family.

The physical spaces of Delhi are authentically evoked—the sodium light lit harshness and smog of the Delhi night, the getting in and out of various metro stations, the hailing of autos that are beset by hijras and beggars at signals, the warren of Nehru Place buildings, the shops of M block market, the chicken cutlets of market number 3, CR park, the shenanigans of parking in CP, the self-consciously chic Khan market cafes, the rare perfect afternoons that sometimes steal upon Delhi in November and in February, the fact, that anyone in any part of this city can, truthfully say, everything has changed here, and be absolutely correct. Take for instance this description of non-mainstream Delhi, from the many forays our detective makes around Delhi:

The …office was in a commercial building towards the upper end of Najafgarh road, not far from the Zakhira transport market. Arjun entered a side road and parked near a mother dairy outlet and got down. The area had the anonymous commercial character common to places outside the main city, and he could pick the stench from the nearby Najafgarh nala, a seasonal river which turned into a blackened sewer in Delhi before emptying into the Yamuna, above Delhi University. As he walked up to the building ahead, he could see some distance beyond it, towards the nala, the towers of a residential project, while to his right was a large new development project and a DDA park beyond it. Delhi kept mutating, changing.” 

Told in third person omniscient, the reader looks at the landscape through the eyes of Arora, which might be hard at times for women readers. But otherwise, the style is direct and accessible, and the protagonist despite all his troubles, remains a self-assured, well-placed insider. We know he is accustomed to coming on top, and circumstances and luck will be on his side. 

The breezy thriller shifts from one exotic locale to another, deftly fleshing side-characters, making interesting observations (she was not the usual plump CR park aunty in a rustling silk saree). The narrative is completely action driven, taking the reader across cities and cityscapes, as detection moves towards resolution. 

In all, a delightfully desi, fast paced, pleasurable read, perfect for a long flight. 

About the Reviewer

Varsha Tiwary lives and writes from New Delhi, India. Her short stories and essays appear in DNA-Out of Print blog, Kitaab; Basil O’Flaherty; Muse India, Jaggerylit, Manifest-station, Spark, Usawa, Café Dissensus, Gargoyle magazine, Outlook magazine blogs, Shenandoah lit mag, Eclectica, Pinecone Review, Months to Years Covid Flash, Cordella, Third Lane Magazine, and Gulmohar Quarterly.

About the Book

Detective Arjun Arora feels his life is crumbling around him. His father has passed away, and he cannot forgive the corrupt police officer who sent Arjun into a coma a year back. And then, a young widow visits him and presses him to take on a new case: to investigate her husband’s mysterious death. Rohit Vats was a pharmaceutical company executive who had recently returned home to Delhi from a work trip to China. Soon after, he turned up in a seedy part of Kolkata—dead.

Was it a love affair gone wrong, geo-political intrigue, or corporate rivalry which led to Vats’ death? Arjun finds that Vats might have been looking into illegal wildlife trafficking and zoonotic diseases like SARS. Increasingly, it appears that the answer to the mystery might lie in China.

About the Author

Ankush Saikia was born in Tezpur, Assam in 1975 and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; Assam; and Shillong, Meghalaya. He has worked in journalism and publishing in New Delhi and is currently based in Shillong in North-East India. Saikia is the author of eight previous books including The Forest Beneath the MountainsThe Girl from Nongrim Hills, and the Detective Arjun Arora series. Tears of the Dragon is the fourth book in the Arjun Arora series. He was shortlisted for the Outlook/Picador-India non-fiction writing competition in 2005 and was one of the recipients of the Shanghai Writers’ Association’s 2018 fellowships. His articles and longform stories (mostly on North-East India) have appeared in FountainInk magazine,, The Indian Express, The Hindu, and Hindustan Times, among others.