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A compelling tightrope walk

Published : Oct 14, 2016, 1:47 am IST
Updated : Oct 14, 2016, 1:47 am IST

Saikia spent 14 years in Delhi, and seems to know the city well. In Remember Death, Arjun Arora has to go to Mumbai and find Agnes Pereira, an air hostess accused of murdering a bar dancer and fleeing with a huge amount of money.


Saikia spent 14 years in Delhi, and seems to know the city well. In Remember Death, Arjun Arora has to go to Mumbai and find Agnes Pereira, an air hostess accused of murdering a bar dancer and fleeing with a huge amount of money.

Last year, Ankush Saikia wrote Dead Meat a crime thriller set in Delhi. It offered a peek into the darker aspects of human existence — money, greed and brutality where detective Arjun Arora, an ex-Armyman, solves the tandoor murder case. Remember Death is the second book in the Arjun Arora mystery series and is as gripping as the first one. However, the particulars of the plot differ. Dead Meat started off with a reference to a true-life crime, and then goes on to match-fixing in the IPL, Remember Death too references a famous murder case and then looks at the strange world inhabited by the actresses in 1960s Bollywood.

The prologue sets the tone for the readers as it is short and lends an eerie feeling. Then we are introduced to Arjun Arora, the detective who remains on his toes. He likes to keep testing his abilities as well as of those who work for him. This shows that our detective is serious about his work. Arjun is given a case that requires him to go to Mumbai and find Agnes Pereira, an air hostess who is accused of murdering a bar dancer and fleeing with a huge amount of money. The case leads him to away from Delhi to Mumbai, Shimla, Goa, Gokarna, Manali and then back in Delhi.

Saikia seems to know Delhi too well and I like the way he gives details of bylanes and streets the dark setting. Saikia lived in Delhi for 14 years (1997 to 2011), so it’s only natural that it plays such a big part in Dead Meat. Saikia says, “I always wanted to write a dark novel set in Delhi, but it came about only after I had moved back to Shillong in 2011. It was deliberate in Remember Death, introducing some new places and trying to make the book pacier. I was in Delhi for 14 years, and I’d like to think that I came to understand and adapt to the place, and even grow fond of it. Delhi is a harsh place for everyone; you have to learn how to survive there.”

As Arjun moves from one place to another, one starts acting as his accomplice or even a competitor in crime solving or finding Agnes. Arjun’s eye for detail is commendable. So compelling are the narrative and settings that even Arjun ignores his intuition and sets out to find Agnes. But when he does find Agnes, a role reversal occurs as he soon realises that he was just a pawn in this big game. He is also mindful of the fact that he is getting attracted to Agnes.

The book now gathers momentum and as more and more characters are introduced you seem to feel as if Arjun is getting tangled in this case what with the tension building up.

Meanwhile, we also get details of Arjun’s personal life. Delhi is a distraction for Arjun as he seems to be lost in his own life his memories Ian Fleming was often accused of making James Bond ruthless, emotionally hollow and Saikia, by adding this the personal parallel of Arjun’s life, slows the book down slightly. “I wanted to add details of Arjun’s personal life (which is mostly troubled) as a sort of side story which would also explain something about why he is the way he is. He is basically a loner, and has problems with people, including his own family members,” elucidates Saikia.

Hercule Poirot is laidback, dignified, Sherlock Holmes is eccentric, Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri is portly and loves food and has his quirks, Arjun is a brilliant detective but flawed. His flaws make him more real, more relatable. Saikia agrees, “Arjun is someone who, by virtue of his upbringing (in small towns across Northeast India, to which he can never return), always has one foot in the past. His nostalgia consumes him even as he struggles to stay afloat in modern-day urban India, especially the harsh environment of Delhi. Ex-Armyman. A loner. Self-destructive. Borderline alcoholic. At the same time a reader, a good cook, respectful of women and a thinker. Fond of mutton, Blender’s Pride, Wrangler jeans, and Kishore Kumar and Led Zeppelin...”

The author seems to have a penchant for layers, plots within sub-plots as he “always liked stories which combine several storylines, or layers, because they lend a depth and richness to the story. I suppose one way to do it is creating an outline on paper as you go along, to have a sort of blueprint of the story — which you can later fiddle around with”.

In the details of the tow, room, setting Saikia’s experience as an editor in journalism and publishing helped him to come up with and then handle these “complicated plots”.

Saikia always puts his detective in danger — he was on the edges of death in Dead Meat and now in Remember Death too. It is only his intellect and sharp mind that comes to his rescue and at the same time he is a brooding fellow who thinks about his past. There’s a contrast — a life gone by in almost sepia tone and the current edgy, anxious moments where Arjun is seen tracking Agnes and solving the case. “I wanted to create a contrast whereby he is in situations where he is almost certain to perish but, taking on a lot of physical punishment, he finally manages to break free. But even solving a crime doesn’t bring him a sense of relief, as the injustices of society are only too obvious to him,” explains Saikia. The author walks the tightrope as he writes — keeping Arjun real and flawed, and yet sharp and observant enough to sniff out clues and come up with possible scenarios.

Saikia knows his genre too well and he doesn’t get carried away even when he makes Arjun look back at his life or the current tension between him and Agnes. The chapters are deliberately kept short and this adds pace to the story. The sub-plots too are woven well and Saikia convinces us to trust Arjun for he knows what he’s doing and getting into. The climax is full of stress as one can feel the tension in the air around Arjun. I read the book at one go, every chapter driving me to read further, to solve the mystery and to expose the culprit and the motive.

I ask Saikia what next and he says, “The third Arjun Arora book, which should open with a murder in Delhi, and then our detective making his way to Manipur and Nagaland to investigate the case!”

Saikia describes Remember Death as “dark”; I agree but I would say, “unputdownable”. Read it.