Anita Nair, A Cut-like Wound (London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 ). Set in Bangalore, this crime novel introduces readers to Inspector Borei Gowda and provides a rare insight into the world of the hijra. 3.5 stars
Opening lines: It wasn’t the ﬁrst time. But it always felt like the ﬁrst time as he stood in front of the mirror, uncertain, undecided, on the brink of something monumental. On the bare marble counter was a make-up kit.
There’s been so much wonderful TV crime drama to report on that I’m a bit behind on my book reviews. So it’s time to explore a crime novel by Anita Nair, an extremely versatile Indian writer known for her novels, essays, children’s fiction, poetry and travelogues. A Cut-like Wound, published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2014, two years after its original publication, is her first foray into crime.
A Cut-like Wound is set in present-day Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru) in India’s southern Karnataka state, and skilfully evokes the heat and dust of this crowded city. Inspector Borei Gowda, the novel’s main investigator, is an engaging creation: in the throes of a mid-life crisis, with a stalling career and a lacklustre marriage, we see him pondering his future in the face of temptation from old flame Urmila, who’s just resurfaced in his life. His struggles with workplace power dynamics as he tries to solve a series of brutal murders are also well drawn.
Like all good international crime fiction, A Cut-Like Wound provides readers with the opportunity to learn about a different culture and society. The novel provides a rounded picture of Bangalore and depicts the lives of citizens from a range of social and economic backgrounds. There’s also an intriguing insight into the city’s minority community of hijra (transgender individuals and eunuchs), who occupy an ambiguous space in Indian society: often depicted in comic supporting roles in Indian cinema, they’re also frequently the victims of real life prejudice and violence. In 2014, in a major group victory, the Indian supreme court awarded hijra the right to select a ‘third gender’ category on official documents, giving them legal visibility at last.
Less convincing for me was the depiction of the murderer within the novel. The motivation for the killings didn’t ring completely true, even though I could see the psychological rationale the author was trying to employ. This weakness and a slight unevenness in narrative tone leads me to give A Cut-like Wound a rating of 3.5 stars.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Indian crime fiction, take a look at the following:
- my review of Vikas Swarup’s Six Suspects (London: Black Swan 2008).
- a great piece by Kalyan Lahiri on Kolkota (Calcutta) crime fiction over at Paul D. Brazill’s blog (Brit Grit and International Noir).
- a review of Ankush Saikia’s Dead Meat over at tripfiction, which includes an illuminating author interview. This P.I. novel is set in Delhi and styles itself as ‘Indian Noir’.
And on its way in 2016: the winner of the 2014 Harvill Secker Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. This novel is set in 1919 Calcutta and shows British policeman Captain Sam Wyndham investigating the politically sensitive murder of a senior government official against the backdrop of the ‘quit India’ movement. I’ve had an advance copy, and am enjoying this hugely assured debut very much. The Wyndham series and its author are definitely ones to watch.
Lovely writeup, Mrs. P. There’s a lot of great Indian crime fiction, from all over the country. And it goes from very gritty to light. It’s definitely worth exploring, I agree. Thanks for giving us a solid place to start.
Thanks, Margot. Are there any Indian crime novels in particular that you’d recommend?
I like Aditya Sudarshan’s writing, Mrs. P. He doesn’t just write crime fiction, but he does the whodunit (e.g. in A Nice Quiet Holiday) very effectively, I think, and with a real sense of authenticity. Swati Kaushal does some fine work, too, I think. She combines a solid mystery with just the right light touch. It’s down-to-earth, but at the same time, a bit lighter. There’s also Kishwar Desai (e.g. Witness the Night). It’s grittier and not afraid to show the darker side of life, so to speak. Hope that helps!
Thanks very much, Margot. Those are really useful suggestions for further reading and I look forward to following up on them!
I read this last year, mainly because my daughter/son-in-law/two young grandsons moved from San Francisco to Bangalore. In February 2015 I spent three weeks there – found two wonderful bookshops and bought some terrific Indian Crime fiction.
As to the book ‘A Cut Like Wound’ it worked to plan but the plot and ending left me wanting. However I learned a lot from the book, about the Hijra community, about how many Indians only speak two languages and one of them is English – did you know that India has 17 official languages? – 17!!!! so people on one side of India have to use English (which is one of the official languages) to communicate with people on the other side of the country. The rural community have little or no choice – they just speak the local lingo. For a crime investigator it is a minefield.
Despite liking both crime fiction and stories set in faraway places, I have read no Indian crime fiction (The last book I read that was set in India was A Fine Balance By Rohinton Mistry, which i loved). Clearly I have been missing out. I think its time to investigate some of your (and Margot’s suggestions.Thanks 🙂
You’re welcome. I haven’t read a great deal of Indian crime fiction either, but have enjoyed what I’ve read so far, so am keen to keep exploring.
These sound like a couple of top recommendations for us. So pleased to hear that you too have enjoyed books that “transport” you to locale #literarywanderlust We have featured your post on our FB page https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=955996287826518&id=170507589708729
Great! Thanks ever so much for sharing the post on Facebook. Very glad to have found you and will enjoy exploring the novels you feature.
Hi Mrs P, In February I was in Bangalore visiting my daughter and grandchilden, and as per usual sought out a good bookshop where I bought several books by Indian authors – including some crime fiction. This past week I finished one of the books, because I don’t have a lot of space to keep lots of books here in Beijing, it occured to me that you might like it. I come back to the UK at the end of this week, and could bring it and send it on to you. The book is ‘ The Premier Murder League’ by Geeta Sundar, published in 2010 by Penguin India. Books in India are very, very cheap – I think the government subsidises the production – this book only cost 150rupees which is the equivalent to £1.50p! I have enjoyed it , it is written in ‘Indian’ English which is quite distinctive, and comes across as slightly old-fashioned, despite the laptops/mobile phones etc. If you would like to read it please email me at jomichieatgmaildotcom, with your address and I will bring it over and pop it in the post.
Hello Jo – thank you! That’s a lovely offer and the novel sounds very intriguing. I’ll email you in a moment. Merry Christmas to you and yours as well! x
Happy Christmas – 圣诞快乐
Herschelian (aka Jo Michie)
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