CRIME CAPER CAPITAL
Patrick Bryson has a long and intimate relationship with India. His stories unfurl in unexpected landscapes and unexplored issues of Indian society
The Sad Demise of Manpreet Singh moves easily from the sequestered diplomatic compounds of Delhi to the rural Punjab with their car and football-shaped water tanks, and back to the sanctuary of perfect respectability (hence, asexuality) of a middle class South Delhi. Dominic ‘Biscuit’ McLeod, the protagonist of the novel, with his seemingly nonchalant temperament, traverses through the social landscapes of North India, chasing the truth behind his colleague’s death. Dominic is endearing, mostly, but he is also a good answer to the Beatles’ question, “Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” He is inquisitive and righteous — both dangerous qualities in a system that propagates ruthless exploitation — but he is also seemingly harmless and the perfect bloke among other cricket-loving, Kingfisher drinking blokes. There is no Irene Adler for romantic interest; only Cindy, the blonde play-safe American, and
Shilpa, the overburdened, no-nonsense girl from Ludhiana. But then, Dominic is no Sherlock. We know that Shilpa has big breasts, supposedly just as many other Punjabi girls do, but I assume that’s more to do with narrative naturalism than Bryson’s view of women. The novel is inhabited by characters that you will run into in cafes and bars at Delhi’s Hauz Khas village, if weddings in farmhouses in the outskirts of Delhi, and even in the over-crowded metro on your way back from work.
Through his extremely readable fiction, Bryson explores the (in)famously wide open secret of India’s justice delivery system and the value of human life in a country where there are just too many people to be valued as roughly the same. A few deaths do not deter those with power to entice and exploit those without it, and a few human lives also do not deter those without power from pursuing the dream of a better life abroad. The theme of expansive networks of power that ensnare even the most upright finds a resounding echo in this novel. The end hints at a large but intangible monster made of greed, corruption and spinelessness, and our Dominic is only a small itch in the fingers of this great monster. Bryson’s capability to keep his readers’ attention through the 313 odd pages of his novel and to dig at issues through an entertaining story should keep him comfortably above a sea of writers in this very crowded city.
‘A character’s needs and wants are very obvious in crime (fiction)’
Congratulations. A lot of wonderful things are being said about The Sad Demise of Manpreet Singh. How does it feel?
Thank you. Overwhelmingly, what I feel is a sense of relief. Getting it accepted for publication was a weight off my shoulders — after such a long apprenticeship — and now that it’s out I feel proud. The fact that people are saying positive things is a bonus. But I’m a typical writer about the praise; I want it, and crave it, yet don’t really know how to take a compliment.
The novel deals with visa frauds, scams, murders, extensive corruption, legal impunity, even the convergence of expatriate and local lives. Why was it important to have crime fiction as the vehicle for the story?
Because crime is a genre that encapsulates all those themes, and worlds, quite easily. All parts of a city meet in a crime story. The guy who makes the most money is never the guy who has to do the dirty work — the underworld is heavily stratified — so I find it extremely engaging, as a reader and writer. A character’s needs and wants are very obvious in crime (fiction). Something has happened; the hero needs to find out why. There is a prize up for grabs: everyone wants it, and failing that they are happy merely to survive. There’s a simplicity that is very human, and an absence of pretension. Also, just the fact that this novel is set in Delhi — where you can be shot over the issue of parking — made the genre seem appropriate.
Dominic is as fluid as the power he wants to confront, decode and fight. He is also an accidental protagonist in this murder(s) mystery, quite unlike the trained and practised sleuths of our fictional heritage so far. What were your inspirations for the novel, literary or otherwise?
Life is an accident, and the majority of us make things up as we go. The professional sleuths of our shared fictional heritage did give me some inspiration, but they also gave me a counterpoint. For instance, I like the idea of Dom — or Biscuit, as he is called — having a strong moral compass; he is only interested in finding out the truth, and he doesn’t care who stands in his way as he goes after it. But I rebelled against the idea of him having all the answers. People might find that comforting in their heroes, but it’s the land of make-believe. I wanted a character and a story that was as complex and grey as the one we all see every day. The majority of crimes, especially in Delhi, go unsolved, or unreported. Closure is just not realistic. Often, the perpetrator will get away, even when everyone knows who did it. The other thing that inspired me was my own accidental way of ending up in Delhi, and mixing in the same worlds as Dom.
Many of your short stories are based in the Northeast of India. Besides, you have also written about the issue of racism with special focus on India. Is there a novel brewing inside you that is based in the Northeast?
Absolutely. I have started one — I’m a few chapters in — but it’s something that has been on my mind for a while. I’ll take my time with it, and juggle it with a sequel to this current book. In a way, I’ve been writing my Northeast novel for ten years, since I first visited Shillong. It’s a crime story, set around one politician and his family, in Meghalaya.
Music seems to be an important element in your life. You write, sing and perform, and have also written about music. How important is it to your process of writing fiction/nonfiction? Can we expect a non-fiction or musical fiction from you?
Music is important to my writing in the same way it’s important to my life: I have a constant soundtrack playing in the background of my mind at all times. Sometimes the volume is very low, and I’m outwardly focused on other things, while at other times all I can hear is the song, and nothing else matters. I think writing songs really helped my prose in that I learnt early on that the best songs were the ones where I was telling a story, and it helped if I was telling the truth — and somehow a little embarrassed about what people might hear or discover by listening. There will certainly be projects of mine involving music in the future. I have a bunch of songs ready to record and release. And I love the scary feeling of being in front of an audience —what Leonard Cohen calls ‘the risk of disgrace’ — so it’s just a matter of time.