When I think of India right now, I think of the ruinous and dangerous politics of Narenda Modi’s government, its mishandling of their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ruthless segregation and dehumanising of the country’s Muslim population leading to the deadly Delhi Riots of last year. But I also think of a country whose people love to enjoy life and their favourite sport, cricket. I’m a big fan of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and nothing put a smile on my face more when some of my favourite players hit fours and sixes across the park, sending fans into fits of dancing and singing. You don’t get that in England as much (and certainly not in my own country, Ireland, where cricket is looked upon as an elite but very minor sport). I think what I’m trying to say is: I hold two views of India, both opposing, at the same time. A dichotomy of sorts, I suppose.
As part of Blackthorn Book Tours, I was happy to read and review author Tom Vater‘s short book, Kolkata Noir. It’s a collection of three connected novellas in one volume, featuring Becker, a photographer with an affinity for Kolkata, and Inspectress Madhurima Mitra of Kolkata Police, the grand niece of one of the city’s most celebrated detectives. The stories are set in 1999, 2019, and 2039. Calcutta becomes Kolkata, then in the future Kilkota. The characters age and grow at the same rate as the city does, with each experience having a profound effect on both Becker and Madhu.
In the first part, a wealthy businessman is found brutally murdered in a back alley. Suspects include his wife Paulami and her paramoure, an Englishman names Richard Dunlop. It’s Dunlop that leads Madhu to Becker, a photographer in his twenties who was seen having a drink with Dunlop shortly before Abir Roychowdhury’s murder. While not a suspect as such, Becker is a person of interest to Madhu. As time goes by, the interest becomes mutual but both are afraid to commit to anything further. Becker is a traveller, not the settling down type, while Madhu is committed to her career and her own family. The mystery in 1999 is intriguing, and once the culprits have been apprehended, Becker and Madhu go their separate ways.
They meet up again in 2019. Becker is hired by the father of two young men who have decided to set themselves up as gurus in Kolkata. Aubrey and Magnus Bilham-Rolls intend to scam the poor and forgotten citizens of Kolkata into funding a search for millions of rupee that Mother Theresa was said to have stashed away before her death. (The late Christopher Hitchens, a vocal critic of Mother Theresa’s charity work would have loved this.) Unknown to both young men, other parties have an interest in their endeavours. A pair of corrupt film-makers and the leader of the city’s major crime gand, Dead King, want their hands on this supposed fortune, too. Becker and Madhu team up and try to save the men from themselves and the forces of evil. It’s a compelling story that gives more insight into the growing relationship between Becker and Madhu, with Kolkata very much the third ‘character’ in the story.
The last story, set in 2039, shows a city very much different to the one we know now. Climate change has flooded most of Kilkota, and a chemical accident some time earlier has left many citizens deformed at birth. It’s a horrible place to live, but people do what they need to do to survive. Becker, now in his mid-sixties, still single, thinks of Madhu constantly, but has never found a reason to rekindle their relationship. However, he receives a call from Meena, Madhu’s daughter, saying that her mother is in trouble and needs to be taken out of Kilkota and brought to safety in Scotland. Becker heads off on a rescue mission. He needs to rescue Madhu’s husband from a bunch of criminals holding him hostage, and then find a way to get everyone on a plane out of the city. It is by far the most perilous story of the three.
So, three very different stories. But the heart and soul of Kolkata Noir is Tom Vater’s deft characterisations. Becker and Madhu have remained with me in the week or so since I read this novella. Also, and this should be highlighted, the supporting characters, many of them citizens of Kolkata live and breathe in these short stories. Becker loves the city, but he doesn’t want to live there. Madhu loves Becker, but doesn’t want to leave the city. Their love is unrequited, as it perhaps must be. But by the end of the book, things may or may not have changed. You will have to read the brilliant and atmospheric Kolkata Noir to find out.