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Cut Like Wound

Anita Nair

Harper Collins India

Pages: 358 Rs. 299

Nair’s ageing detective softly treads the hardboiled path

Anita Nair’s new novel is a satisfying detective story as well as a fine sociological commentary on the lives of those living on the fringes of society, writes Jai Arjun Singh

JAI ARJUN SINGH  20th Oct 2012

This is Anita Nair’s first foray into detective fiction.

hrillers or police procedurals often begin with a mood-establishing prologue that describes a crime being committed; typically in such passages one gets some generic information about the criminal, a shadowy figure about whom nothing too important can yet be disclosed. But the opening pages of Anita Nair's Cut Like Wound – set in Bangalore over a little more than a month – are intriguing for the amount of detail they provide, for their almost casual build-up to an unpremeditated murder, and for the subtle creation of empathy for the murderer, who is presented as disoriented and emotionally vulnerable.

Right at the beginning we learn that he is a man dressing up as a woman, but by the time the transformation is complete (and the identifying pronoun has become "she") we also know that this isn't a whim or a perversion – it is a deep internal impulse, and "Bhuvana" has a real need to be accepted and desired in her new form. And yet, the murder and its cover-up have a savagery that one might associate with male aggression. This dichotomy nicely sets up a story about a killer – and perhaps a city – with multiple personalities.

We will continue to encounter Bhuvana at regular intervals through the story, but this does not dilute the book's suspense – we still have to find out who she is, and other subsidiary discoveries will be made along the way. Much of this is done in the company of Inspector Borei Gowda – pushing 50, stockier than he should be, afflicted by melancholia but also sharp and capable of bursts of inspiration – and an earnest but wet-behind-the-ears sub-inspector named Santosh. Their investigation centres on grisly killings with a distinct modus operandi, and on the possible involvement of a shady local corporator.

Given this premise, Cut Like Wound is required to work first at the level of a well-paced thriller, and this it successfully does. There are stray signs of the pat, hurried writing that characterises all but the very best commercial fiction, as well as a mild tendency towards over-exposition, and a few genre clichés: the cynical officer who is letting himself go to seed but who still has a special quality (referred to here as "super sakaath sense"); the subordinate-cum-foil who has much to learn about police-work and the world in general; the smug superior officers. But Nair achieves a pleasing restraint in the key passages, and nowhere does this show more than in a tense climax, which leaves a few things unsaid and doesn't try too hard to tie up every loose strand.

The novel is a commentary on the lives of the sexually marginalised, on the blurring of gender expectations, and the emotional baggage carried by both men and women in a world of role-playing and self-presentation.

However, I also found this book consistently interesting as a commentary on the lives of the sexually marginalised, on the blurring of gender expectations, and the emotional baggage carried by both men and women in a world of role-playing and self-presentation. The inhabitants of the society depicted here – one that includes posh malls as well as seedy underbellies and much in between – are, to varying degrees, struggling with gender roles and perceptions. The main characters include a short-statured man who has spent his life in the shadow of a dominating older brother and an über-macho thug tellingly named King Kong (and associated with a large SUV – described as a "villain vehicle" – that becomes a thing to intimidate other people with), but hints of the larger themes can be seen in even peripheral characters such as Gowda's old friend Michael, a widower who continuously feels the lack of his wife's anchoring presence.

lso in this frame are a community of eunuchs living in the cracks between a supposedly ordered society, transsexuals in more privileged environments but yearning for a different life, emotionally repressed men who find succour in the worship of an angry mother goddess, and other men who are – with various consequences – in touch with their feminine sides. We get fleeting glimpses of people – young boys wearing flashy earnings in coffee shops, for instance – who flirt with the boundaries simply because they are bored or because they can. And much of this is linked to the many complications of living in an unsettling big-city environment. "One more choice. What was it about urban life that demanded you make a choice every minute, every day?" a character wonders in a relatively mundane situation (he has been asked if he wants mineral or regular water), but the question applies in broader contexts with far-reaching repercussions.

This adds up to a pattern of lives lived on the edge, and our "hero" is hardly exempt from it. Gowda has his own suppressed impulses, as we see in his vivid fantasies about kicking a senior officer's face in, and given the book's concerns one wonders how much this has to do with the absence of a stabilising relationship in his life. He falls with some trepidation into an affair with a woman who is more sophisticated and worldly-wise in many ways – UK-returned, comfortable in spaces like piazzas and malls that rarely intersect with his world – and behind his guilt about being unfaithful to his absent wife one senses a patriarchal man who needs to be in control, to be the dominating partner in a relationship. His many glum reflections (listening to the happy young couple staying above him, he wonders if he and his wife had ever laughed like that) can be viewed as standard tropes of an aging-cop story, but they also fit well into a narrative about misfits and loners.

In his own way, he is nearly as marginalised as some of the more extreme cases he encounters, and if this book leads to a full-fledged series (as the "Introducing Inspector Gowda" on the cover implies it will) much of its pleasure should come from watching this man patrol the mean streets of his city, dealing with his own urban alienation as well as those of his quarries – and perhaps in wondering how thin that line between mild unrest and full-blown psychosis really is.

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