Friday, October 26, 2012

Cut Like Wound - Anita Nair

'Cut Like Wound', Anita Nair's latest novel, is listed under the not-too-deeply-explored category of detective fiction in India. Anita Nair has written in all genres already - literary fiction, poetry, children's fiction, historical fiction, translation and some more - so its not surprising that she chose to experiment with yet another genre, and a difficult one at that. (I am seriously waiting for the day when she turns to comedy - she will be a riot with her honest, in-your-face, irreverent style which I think is the hallmark of great writers of comedy.) I loved her 'Ladies Coupe' which I read many years ago and several of her other books and was looking out eagerly for this one. And for sure, this one is a winner.

One thing that 'Cut like wound' does to the reader (it did to me) is that the characters seep directly into your life. Inspector Borei Gowda will remain with me for long just as Assyrian does or Atticus does or Byomkesh Bakshi does - but where Anita Nair has gone further than detective fiction is in making the characters bigger than being just super detectives who somehow dazzle you with their super deductive skills. Borei is a good detective, nothing extraordinary or dramatic about the way he goes about things, and he generally goes on a hunch. No great mannerisms, no cute theatrics - he is just another guy who could have been something else if he believed in himself a bit more  and that is precisely the kind of a thing that makes you want to take the night bus to Bangalore and meet Borei and drink rum and coke with him.

The story moves on both levels though, detective and real life next-door, expanding and bringing us closer to a life we know but choose to ignore, a life that we are scared to explore or even acknowledge - and this is where Anita Nair is at her best in this book. She explores and lays bare that side fearlessly and with all the honesty she is capable of - and I as a reader was amazed at what she is capable of when going into such uncomfortable territory. I am of course talking of a world of eunuchs, of rituals, of male prostitutes, of homosexuality, of police stations and inspectors with dying ideals, of serial murders, of love and lust, of a professionalism one can bring even to murder, of sex, legitimate and illegitimate that creeps and drips through each one of us. Anita Nair makes the characters so true and gets under their skin so well that you identify and sympathise with all of them, including the serial killer.

Briefly then, 'Cut Like Wound' is set in Bangalore, in a 38 day period between Ramzan and St. Mary's Day, in the Shivaji Nagar area (I want to go and visit that now). Random killings happen, all with a cut like wound and a blow to the head. Most of the victims seem to have had sex before they died and have not put up a fight. Anita paralelly lets you into the world of a young cross-dresser, so good looking that most men fall for 'her', out snaring his victims, falling in love with some of them, having unrestrained, no-holds-barred, shameless sex with them before killing them off one by one with a cut like wound around their neck.

Though there appears to be no connection between the random murders of the apparent low life, Inspector Borei Gowda, a late forty something, ex-basketball champion, ex-idealistic and super cop who has the super sakaath sense that not many detectives have and who is now currently in oblivion career-wise, is in-charge of the investigation. Borei's life with his rum and coke, his shiny Bullet motorbike, his new tattoo tat he hides, his rebellious teenage son studying Medicine in Hassan with whom there is little communication, his wife Mamtha with whom he has little in common, appears doomed for this life until the first murder gives him a new lease of life. He gets a new assistant, Santosh Gowda, idealistic as Borei was when he was young and full of enthusiasm, and the two team up well.

In course of the investigation Borei meets his old classmate from college - Michael Hunt - who tells Borei about the return of Lady Urmila, Borei's college sweetheart to Bangalore. And before we realise we enter the world of police stations with tea and cakes, third degree torture, red tapism and bureacracy, the shadowy world of the prostitutes, the eunuchs, the gays, the corporator who was once a caddy and who now has a Scorpio, and a huge mansion with tall gates. Most things make you uncomfortable as you read the story - the young killer's flaming desire for homosexual sex, an all encompassing thing that consumes him and also gives him an identity, Borei's extra marital dalliance, the ruthless murders and mostly the fact that it is all just one shade removed from your world - scratch it and you are in there - as simply as you enter the station that take you to Hogwarts. Through Ramzan, the St. Mary's Day, we zip through 353 pages of razor sharp story telling combined with some fine research (from the making of manja for kites in Hyderabad, to the way the cross dresser dresses, the perfumes, the Bullet, the stuff that cleans shower holes) sitting on the shoulders of some of the most interesting characters one has ever met in Indian fiction.

Borei Gowda is a winner. Santosh is brilliant as his under study. Urmila, Mamtha and Roshan (check how I got Urmila before the family, but that's what the book does to you), ACP Vidyasagar, and more importantly a Bangalore that one knows which is a definite character in the book with the bars and pubs on Brigade Road, the Hennur Road, well - it all stays with you. I cannot remember a single book in the last many years where I remember so many characters by their names and where scenes come to mind very visually. I loved the way Anita Nair got into the serial killer's head, the wild fluctuation between the killer's fragile and delicate female side and the ruthlessly brutal male side, his bare and raw want for sex - and that is where he scares you and becomes the villain who is capable of challenging the immensely talented Borei's sakaath sense, and his formidable reputation. The villain's unpredictability hangs comfortably over his devious scheming mind.

Anita Nair has penned a winner here. I think, she has also found that sweet spot in her writing, the one where she is completely honest, brutal and out there. If one has to nitpick, it is in wanting to know the explanations of how the murders happened, the tie up between each murder, the design and so on, for which I am sure she has her answers but like all good things, the overall effect was good enough for me even if she has no answers. One cannot get enough of Borei and his highly normal ways. His weaknesses and his principles. His being a hero is a paradox but that is the kind of stuff Anita Nair presents - a world of paradoxes where normal is abnormal and abnormal is normal, where the mediocre are heroes and the heroes are the scum.

To me it 'Cut Like Wound' is much larger in scale than I can express at this point because Anita Nair chose to go into areas that exist in our society that not many would want to venture in and she deserves much applause for going even where not many men writers have not ventured. That thread of giving a f..k to the world runs through the book in all characters - including the fact that the mistress or the other woman is confidently promoted over the wife. Now who is fooling who boss, if you want it go and get it - is the tone! And that is the kind of an irreverence that excites me, that makes life seem more alive than long, boring descriptions of the skies, the lakes and kitchens and stuff like that. Give me raw and honest emotion anyday and believe me, Anita Nair packs enough to knock off the steadiest ones with this book. Great job Anita and keep at it. I simply love this thing and cannot wait to see Borei get himself into more situations.

On another level, I must confess that I would not classify this as detective fiction. It occupies a new space for me, something I have not been exposed to before where the hero is a bit of a villain and the villain and bit of a victim, and you sympathise with both, where you are rooting for the mistress and perhaps wishing that the lovers just let it all go and had a ball together when they got a second chance. A bit like what Murakami  does to me and in a more identifiable and enjoyable way, in a setting I am familiar with. Also must confess that the book left me disturbed after a day of setting it aside - and that is a big compliment for any book, or any creative work for that matter. Go for it - you will certainly enjoy Indian English Writing's confident entry into detective fiction. And more.


Anonymous said...

Hari Mohan - I Couldn't have reviewed it with as much eloquence or clarity as you have.
The story is linear but I liked the way she digresses to past to describe a character or his behavior and seamlessly jumps back and continues with the current events.
I also liked the use of Kannada and other languages (local lingo) used to bring in the local atmosphere so well.
I enjoyed the book thoroughly and probably the first of its kind by an Indian author.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Anonymous. I agree with you. Enjoyed reading it thoroughly and am waiting for the sequel and for Borei Gowda's future exploits.

Neha Sharma said...

Cut like Wound is about a serial killer loose in Bangalore. As Borei Gowda tries to catch the killer, Anita Nair's narration brings alive Bangalore's sights and sounds. She captures the dilemma's of Borei's mid life crisis, his loneliness and his tendency to call a spade a spade. The novel moves leisurely yet is not slow. The book, unlike, other books in this genre does not present the hero as a caricature but as a mortal with his own share of doubts and desires and it is that depiction of Borei that lifts this book above the ordinary. A good read and I can't wait for more in the Borei Gowda series.