Monday, April 20, 2009

The Delhi trip

After a gap of a year and half, I returned to Delhi for a short visit about a month ago. It had primarily to do with family matters, and was a whirlwind trip of a week, in which I had to pack spending time with family, catching up with a few friends, swatting off pesky work-related phone calls, getting a certain amount of work done, browsing at Midlands, and feeling incessantly homesick. I didn't, of course, manage to do quite a few things I had really, really wanted to - like eating loads of golgappas and plates of papri chaat, for instance - I didn't manage even one - and shoe shopping, and meeting or even talking to every friend of mine in the city, as a result of which at least one friend has stopped talking to me for what I fervently hope is the time being. But the net result is a feeling of utter relief at the knowledge that I no longer live in Delhi, that our decision to move out wasn't, after all, a mistake, in that we are definitely much happier at having moved out.

Most of south Delhi - which, being where I had lived for the last ten years, was where I confined myself - seemed to have become one large construction site; everywhere I went, roads were blocked off on both sides by PWD boards; the city seemed to be given over to the construction of flyovers or the extension of the Metro line - either way, it was a commuter's nightmare. There is frenzied building all over in an attempt to be ready for the 2010 Commonwealth Games - most residents, however, are pretty doubtful as to whether the city will be ready in time. Never a friendly city where pedestrians are concerned - after all, if you're so pathetic as to be walking on foot instead of driving or being driven in big, fancy cars, you may as well resign yourself to a life of invisibility, shorn of all humans rights - the blocked-off roads and deep trenches mean that it is well-nigh impossible to walk down some Delhi roads, even if there's an emergency. I was told that once all the construction is completed, Delhi will be a city to behold - an ariel view will show a cityscape akin to any mega city in the world, with beautifully laid-out roads and interconnecting flyovers, and gleaming malls boasting of every luxury brand imaginable. I think there must be something decidedly wrong with me - because at that image, I uttered a silent thank you to whatever powers-that-be do or do not exist that in that future, I will be living in chaotic, confusing Kolkata, teeming with people jostling for road space with rickshaws, rattly, noisy buses and cars - and little shops and dhabas lining the sides of nearly every street, selling you everything you would want, and a lot more you wouldn't.

I enjoyed my desultory amble down Green Park Market, though, and hanging out at Midlands, wishing I was a millionaire so I could buy up half the shop - but since I wasn't, I had to remain content with two books (Ian Rankin) and a graphic novel (Mauss) for K (after all, we had pretty much bankrupted ourselves at the Kolkata book fair, and it's not right to be too greedy, is it?) - followed by a fun afternoon at Dilli Haat with a friend, PD, where we ate our way through a couple of food stalls and wandered around in the misting rain (and, of course, it had to rain the one day I decided to spend outdoors, dressed in my summeriest best) - however, after the first couple of days of going out, while walking down the crowded Khan Market with its glitzy shops (but not a single decent shoe shop anywhere; I mean, seriously, what's gone wrong??), I realised that I was, quite unconsciously, comparing myself to the women around and coming up short, even in my mind - my hair looked stupid, my clothes were shabby and uncool, and I did need a pair of good shoes. I'm not sure if the first two were true, but that's how I felt - and I realised that just a couple of days in Delhi had reduced me to defining and judging others - and my own self - by my appearance; suddenly, what I was wearing, where I was wearing it to, and how I looked was so much more important, because that's how it is in Delhi - clothes and cars and shoes and hair and brands make you who you are, separate you from those who are with it and therefore worth it, and those who aren't. It's funny how I never think along those lines in Kolkata, no, not even if I'm going out to some so-called 'happening' place; but despite knowing where my insecurity stemmed from, I couldn't stop myself staring miserably at my hair and my supposedly pitiful collection of clothes all through the week.

And here's another thing about the visit - I was careful to make sure I was back home before dusk, unless we had a car or I was being dropped back, because I was told time and again that Delhi, never a 'safe' city for women, had grown worse over the last couple of years. There was a murder just a couple of days before I left - and the one evening I made my way back on my own somewhat late (after 8 PM) after meeting a couple of friends, I clutched at my pepper spray nervously through part of the auto ride that took me through a desolate stretch with a woody patch on either side, cars zooming by at full speed, and not a soul on foot - not that that would of any use, in a city like Delhi. Halfway through the journey, I received an anxious 'where are you, it's getting late' call from my aunts, and was greeted with 'we were getting a bit worried' once I returned home. I don't recall being this nervous in Kolkata, ever, not even later in the evening. It's sad that the capital of the country, the future mega-city, cannot assure its citizens the basic safety they're entitled to.

I miss my family - my granny, my aunts, my uncle - and my friends, and a few favourite places - but on the whole, as I told Mary, another friend, this return visit brought home to me all over again just how much I'd grown to dislike Delhi and everything it stood for, and how relieved I feel to no longer be living there. My apologies to those who love the city and cannot imagine living elsewhere - as far I'm concerned, home is where the heart is, and my heart is lodged firmly in Kolkata.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Fred Vargas

I've been deep into crime fiction, one of my favourite genres of literature (yes, I said literature. So there.) of late - and European crime fiction at that. Americans, I find, can write good thrillers and potboilers, which become all too predictable after the first three or four books, but when it comes to police procedurals, complete with imagination, ingenuity, detailing, characterisation, it's the Europeans who rule. And I have recently discovered yet another writer of police procedurals - a Frenchwoman, an academic, who goes by the decidedly unfeminine name of Fred Vargas.

Vargas' books are set in Paris, and her main character, Commissaire Principal Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, is clearly modelled on the detective who set the whole concept of urban police procedurals with a flawed, damaged even, policeman at the centre in motion - Chief Inspector Martin Beck, of the wonderful and canonical series of ten books written by the Swedish pair Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Like the Martin Beck series, where the city of Stockholm plays as huge a role as any character, Paris, with its quirks, its alleyways, its cafes and the various arrondisements into which it is divided, is a constant presence in the Adamsberg books. Like Beck, Adamsberg has a disturbed personal life; again, like Beck, he goes on to head a murder squad; couldn't care less about rules or his appearance or the image he portrays; is intuitive; solves pretty much every case assigned to him; is, by all accounts, an attractive man. That's where the similarity ends, though - but more on that later.

That Vargas is an academic is made abundantly clear in her plotlines, which very often have academics with esoteric specialisations and references and quotes from medieval tomes peppered liberally throughout - sometimes they even form the pivot around which the plot turns. Like her detective Adamsberg, who is prone to daydreaming and functions for the most part with 'his head in the clouds', Vargas' tales often take meandering turns down flights of fancy, with whole paragraphs devoted to disjointed and vaguely confused thoughts invested with the task of propelling the narrative forward. Adamsberg, we are told, is a gentle yet restless man - his voice has a peculiar soothing quality that lulls the listener to tranquillity and pushes them to confiding in him - a trait that comes in very useful during interrogations - yet he cannot stay still for a moment, preferring long walks to desk work, and constant activity at particularly pressing moments, when he most needs to think. His train of thought follows no apparent logic - intuition, of the almost mystical, clairvoyant kind (unlike Beck, whose flashes of insight were always rooted in reality, in fact and experience) is what leads him to an understanding of how, and why, the crime was committed.

Adamsberg's counterfoil is Inspector Danglard, his second-in-command - as addicted to logic as Adamsberg is to woolly chains of thought, a firm believer in the routine his superior holds in mild disdain. Danglard, with his alcoholism ('Tell me what you need me to do before four in the afternoon - I don't function too well after that'), his five children (two sets of twins, and one, the blue-eyed boy, 'was clearly not his', but his wife had dumped him on Danglard anyway) who he adored and who kept him sane, his unhappiness at his lack of physical attraction, which his impeccable clothing did nothing to compensate - is, somehow, a far more believable and endearing character than Adamsberg - as are the various other members of the Murder Squad - the intrepid Violette Retancourt and the wide-eyed Estalere, for instance. However, unlike the Martin Beck series, where Beck is a part of a team, whose other members are just as important - sometimes even more so - than the central character, Vargas tends to devote more space to Adamsberg dreamy soliloquies, which tend to grate at times - especially when some of the perpheral characters turn out to have much more heart than the principal one. This, perhaps, is one of the biggest flaws in Vargas' writing - that she has created a central character who is very difficult to identify with, or even like.

This flaw in a way also diminishes the rigor of police work - the dull routine slogging, which forms the bulk of police work, so carefully and intricately detailed by Sjowall and Wahloo (and by writers like Ian Rankin, P.D. James, Peter Robinson, Henning Mankell) is pushed to the background, and Adamsberg and his imaginative forays down paths where the proverbial angels fear to tread dominate - and so, at the end, you're at times left dissatisfied, unable to connect the dots that led to the denouement. Rigour is also sacrificed at the altar of what has clearly become the modern-day version of witchcraft - hacking. Hackers, the twenty-first century shamans with their codes and encryptions and viruses taking the place of spells and rites are now increasingly being turned to in the solution of murder mysteries - why follow clues or deal with forensics when you have someone to sit before a computer and almost intantly - CSI-style - provide you with all the answers you need, generously supplied by people too stupid to know better than to confide their deepest, darkest secrets to their computer's hard drives. I'm not sure, being almost a Luddite, if this is at all possible - all I know is that taking this easy short-cut has sounded the death knell of ingenuous police procedurals. It isn't just Vargas, but otherwise brilliant writers like Stieg Larsson who succumb to this temptation - thereby substantially eroding the charms of the good, old-fashioned detective novel.

The Adamsberg books are typically French, though, with their emphasis on the pleasures of a good cup of coffee or a glass of wine; the importance attached to people's clothes and styles of dressing - Adamsberg, who for the most part goes around looking 'like a pig's breakfast', is regarded as a curiosity because of his total disregard of what he wears; his sandals once moved a junior sufficiently to exclaim, in tones of great horror, 'You're surely not going out in those!'; sexual relationships are a necessary, but hardly all-consuming parts of characters' lives; and the French disdain for and amusement at English people and Canadians are all too apparent.

Vargas' books are interesting and informative, although sadly lacking in humour of the sort that was so apparent in the Martin Beck books - but then, aren't the French supposed to take themselves very seriously? - and well worth reading if you're a fan of police procedurals; however, if you like this genre to be rooted in solid police work, and if you like your detectives to be real and endearing like Martin Beck and his murder squad, or gritty like Rankin's Rebus, or as dogged and stubborn as Mankell's Kurt Wallander, you'll probably come away wanting more.