Black River by Nilanjana Roy

I’m delighted to be one of today’s stops on the Pushkin Vertigo blog tour for this gripping noir novel by Indian author Nilanjana Roy. Although billed as a murder mystery, and there is indeed a murder to be solved, it is also very much a ‘state of the nation’ novel bringing the religious politics of Hindu vs Muslims, and also class politics in Indian society into play.

The story begins in 2017 in Teetarpur, an unremarkable rural village a way outside Delhi. Munia, the beloved daughter of Chand and his brother Balle Ram is just eight years old, when one day playing in the field beyond her home at the edge of the village she witnesses something that will cost her her life. She is found hanging from a jamun tree by Mansoor, a poor, itinerant Muslim man, who is instantly assumed to have been her murderer by the Hindu villagers. Chand and his family are blinded by grief, but Chand knows in his heart that Mansoor is innocent.

Sub-Inspector Ombir Singh and his assistant Bhim Sain are the local police officers who must deal with the clamor to arrest Mansoor, and stop the immanent television vans from intruding on Chand.

From behind him, Bhim Sain says, ‘They’re taking the case seriously. […] the SHO at Faridabad said they’d send an officer. A big officer, top one. Haryana cadre, but my friends say he grew up in Delhi and has uncles in politics over there. He’s not like us.’

Ombir stares at the worn desk. ‘When does he reach?’

‘The day after tomorrow,’ Bhim Sain says. ‘First thing in the morning.’

Ombir wishes he could put his head down and sleep until the Delhi boy arrives. But a day is very little time.

‘Suspects,’ he says. ‘We’ll need more suspects.’

The investigation now pauses to return to Chand’s youth, he left Teetarpur for Delhi to make his fortune back when he was sixteen. He finds a cramped roomshare with Khalid, who works as a lorry loader. At first, Chand can only get short temporary jobs, and is in danger of having to make the difficult decision to go home, when Khalid tells him about a job as a cleaner at a Qureishi butcher. Chand goes to work doing all the dirtiest jobs for Badshah Miyan, but does them so well that in time the butchers goes up a notch in the hygiene stakes, attracting a better class of clientele! Khalid and his wife Rabia who will join him when they move becoming Chand’s closest friends – there is no religious rivalry between them. Badshah Miyan will, likewise, become a hugely valued friend to the young Hindu. Times are beginning to change though, and there are riots in Delhi. Khalid is picked up by the police in a random sweep, and it when released without charge, back home he shows the effects, when he can’t cope when his young son isn’t well.

It is confirmed from these friendships across religious divides that Chand is a good man. So, when we return to the present day, although the ‘Delhi Boy’ may be happy to accept Mansoor as the murderer, despite warnings to Ombir Singh that should it not be the case, his job is on the line and there will be no promotion for him as there could be now, Ombir isn’t convinced, and never was. He will continue to investigate.

This is where the class system begins to really impact things. Chand’s neighbour is the local land and factory owner, who is buying up farmers fields to develop the village into a town. Jolly-ji is all smarm and happy to grease palms to ease things with the police, his factory foreman is a suspect too. He offers Chand whatever he needs in his hour of grief – with ulterior motives always at work.

I won’t say any more, but we will meet Chand’s friends from Delhi again, and we will discover who the murderer is, the case will be solved – but it won’t bring Munia back. As the novel’s tagline goes

It takes a village to kill a child.

I so enjoyed this novel, the first erstwhile crime novel set in India that I’ve read (I think). Roy brings the contemporary world of Teetarpur to life, as she does life in Delhi a few decades earlier; the heat, the landscapes, the rivers, the squalor, and the meat, not forgetting the religious tensions and privilege of the monied few. The characters of Chand, Khalid, Rabia and Badshah Miyan, alongside Ombir Singh are generously written, supported by a vivid supporting cast from all walks of life, from Jolly-ji to poor Mansoor.

The author’s decision to put the crime on hold to explore Chand’s years in Delhi was a good one. Vegetarians may grimace at the descriptions of abattoirs and butchers shops, but these pages were full of life. Then, returning to the crime, we were brought back down to earth, as Ombir struggles to maintain equilibrium, protecting his chief suspect from those who would string him up immediately.

It may be a cliché, but I did find this novel a totally immersive read. The world was largely unfamiliar to me, and I revelled in exploring it through Roy’s elegant writing. It may be her first crime novel, but as a journalist, literary critic, editor and author of other books, she has a wealth of writing experience. Another hit for Pushkin Vertigo, expanding further their diverse list of world noir authors, new and old.

Source: Review copy – Thank you! Pushkin Vertigo hardback, 350 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

5 thoughts on “Black River by Nilanjana Roy

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Crime novels seem as good a route into a country’s culture and peoples as any, and this does appeal – except I’d plead Marina Sofia’s excuse about acquiring fewer books. Except, in my case at least, this last is never going to happen, is it?!

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