When a poet dabbles with prose, you expect him to write serious stuff, not a cat-and-mouse thriller featuring smart Kolkata cops and larger-than-life sinister godman. That’s what Uttaran Das Gupta has done in his debut fiction, Ritual (PAN, 2020), a police procedural about a religious cult, its charismatic leader and militant devotees, and bodies of girls with their hearts cut out of their chests.
In this interview with Dibyajyoti Sarma, the poet-author (who published his poetry collection Visceral Metropolis in 2017) explains the importance of crime fiction and what Kolkata means to him.
You are known as a sensitive poet, so one would have expected you to write a ‘literary novel’; anything but a crime novel. What attracted you to write Ritual?
Well, frankly, I was commissioned. I was shortlisted for a short story competition by a major publisher. An editor there then commissioned me to write a murder mystery. She specifically told me to notmake it literary. I thought that was a good challenge — to abstain from references.
At the same time, I feel that the distinction between a “literary” and a “popular” novel is a false one. There are only two kinds of writing — good and bad. One aspires to good writing, rather than striking a literary pose.
Was your work as a journalist a motivator to write this story? I ask this because the novel is filled with sly commentaries on social-political realities of the country, including details of newspaper headlines.
Well, yes, my work as a journalist has helped me become a better writer — as a novelist or a poet. Journalism teaches one discipline as well as the skill to write with clarity, with brevity, without obfuscation or prevarication.
But let me take issue with your comment “sly commentaries” on socio-political realities. The commentaries are not sly at all. I have done it with all consciousness.
What fascinated me was how you engage with the city. In your poetry collection, Visceral Metropolis, you explored the city of Delhi in the guise of a burgeoning relationship. Now, you are exploring Kolkata through the lens of crime. How important Kolkata was for you in the telling of the story? Why not Delhi?
Kolkata — or Calcutta, since the novel is set in 1989 — is extremely important, since it is the setting of the novel. As you know, Calcutta is the city in which I grew up, in the final years of the Left Front government. While I was writing this novel, I also travelled in Berlin and other post-Soviet cities in East Europe. The similarities between Calcutta and its post-communist cousins — in statues of communist leaders, iconography or architecture — was remarkable. It convinced me to write about Calcutta’s communist past, which does play a major role in this novel.
The editor who had initially commissioned me to write the novel had specifically asked me to set it in Calcutta. I have never thought of Delhi as a setting for my novel. Maybe I will someday.
What I loved about the book are the tiny details about the different locations that you have peppered your narrative with. Did you have to do research on the locations while writing the book?
Thank you for reading my book closely. Yes, of course, I did some research on it. I read several books, which I acknowledge in my novel: Calcutta – The Living City, Vol. II: The Present and the Future(2000) edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri; Show Your Tongue (1989) by Günter Grass; Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization (2016) by Sumanta Banerjee; Margins of Citizenship: Muslim Experiences in Urban India (2017) by Anasua Chatterjee; and Goyendapeeth Lalbazaar: Ek Dozen Khuner Ruddhashash Nepathakotha (2018) by Supratim Sarkar.
Also, most of the places I describe in the book are familiar to me. But, as I wrote the novel over two years, I visited several of them and took notes. This helped me recreate the world for my novel.
ACP Ashutosh is certainly the protagonist of the novel, but it is narrated by his deputy. It did remind me Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Was it a conscious choice or it just happened? Or was it the influence of Feluda and Topse?
Definitely Dr Watson and Topse are inspirations for his deputy, Inspector Pradip Batabyal. The detective is rarely the narrator in the classical mystery novel. I have tried to pay homage to that.
Not so long ago, crime fiction was a forgotten genre in India English fiction. Today, however, we have a library’s worth of crime novels in India, thanks to the authors like Tarquin Hall, Kalpana Swaminathan, Zac O’Yeah, to name a few authors. Your views on the crime novel genre in India?
I think you forgot to mention Madhulika Liddle, whose crime novels, set in Shah Jehan’s Delhi, are a class apart. (Liddle gave an endorsement for Ritual.) Also, Jerry Pinto ventured into the genre with Murder in Mahim.
I believe the genre is very attractive, because it has a versatility and is also very challenging. I am thinking of Graham Greene who used the genre to write what one might describe as very literary novels, or Mario Vargas Llosa and Roberto Bolano who have both used elements of crime fiction in their novels.
It has become a common genre not only in literary but also other forms of entertainment such as streaming service. So many Netflix programmes are crime narratives. I think the audience also finds it fascinating.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a novel, Inclement Clime. It is more “literary” if you will, but there are many elements of crime fiction as well. I am also finishing a book of poems, Overfamiliar/Unfamiliar.
Please name five of your favourite crime novels and why you like them.
My favourite is The Snowman by Jo Nesbo. I feel a crime novel is in many ways a game between the writer and the reader — a sort of a challenge, even a seduction. Can the reader solve the puzzle before the writer? This novel incorporates this aspect into the plot.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Flynn is one of my favourite writers. Her plotting is wicked. What I like most are the different perspectives provided by different characters in this novel.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This is less a novel and more a true crime narrative, and though Capote was later accused of altering many of the facts, I find this an absolutely stunning exercise in the narrative art.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. If you have read the book, you know what I mean. I don’t want to give away spoilers.
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. This is another example of the writer using the vessel of the crime novel to comment on class.
Can I name another one? The Third Man by Graham Greene. This is so atmospheric and with such a devastating climax. In Vienna, I had tried to visit all the places associated with this novel. It was also an inspiration in creating the atmosphere of Calcutta, 1989.
Coming back to poetry, how easy or difficult is it for a poet to be novelist? How do you approach writing a novel as opposed to writing a novel?
I think poetry and novels come from different places for me. When I am not writing poetry, I completely cease to be a poet. There is nothing in my life or existence that can identify me as a poet. But then, suddenly poetry will come, and I will write.
To write a novel requires hard work and commitment, to return to the desk every day and write something. It can be very frustrating but when you finish the MS, it is very gratifying.
Dibyajyoti Sarma has published three volumes of poetry and an academic book, besides numerous writing credits in edited volumes, journals and websites. He was born in Assam and now lives in Delhi.
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