Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A 'righteous' murder: Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects

Vikas Swarup’s new novel begins with an account of the misdemeanors committed by a rich, unscrupulous young man named Vicky Rai, who knows he can rely on his dad’s contacts to shield him from the law. Vicky’s career in crime comes to a head when he whips out a gun and shoots a bargirl who refuses him a drink. Though there are witnesses to the murder, the trial turns into a farce and - to widespread outrage - he is soon released. Then, at a farmhouse party held to celebrate his acquittal, Vicky is himself shot dead by an unknown assassin.

The first half of this story is, of course, a barely disguised version of the Jessica Lall-Manu Sharma case. Since Vicky is the most visible face of the darker side of a society where the rich and powerful know they can get away with anything, his own murder seems like an almost symbolic act: an incensed middle class striking out against its tormenters; the shot that launches the revolution. But it’s also a real killing, carried out with a real gun, and there are six unlikely suspects: a native from an island in the Andaman, searching for a sacred stone that was stolen from his tribe; a popular young actress who pretends to be a bimbo but quotes Nietzsche; Vicky’s father Jagannath Rai, a slimy politician; an enterprising mobile-phone thief; a retired bureaucrat with a split-personality problem; and an idiot American who was conned into coming to India to get married. Which of them is the killer, what is the motive and how did most of them come to be at this party in the first place?

The thing to admire about Six Suspects is the breadth of Swarup’s storytelling. This book is really a collection of six separate stories – all of which are reasonably well-plotted – that eventually converge into a large narrative. Many other authors would have been temped to milk this material for all it was worth, to perhaps spread it over two or three books, but Swarup packs it all into one dense novel. However, this is to the detriment of his book, which is unwieldy, overwritten and under-edited. Conversations that could easily have been finished in three or four sentences meander on, there is too much exposition, and some of the sub-plots in the personal stories of the six suspects seem to have been included only so that each person could be given a novella-length background. It takes a lot of patience to get through the section about the tribal criss-crossing India – from Calcutta to Chennai to Banaras to Allahabad – in search of his talisman, or the one where the American, Larry Page, finds himself kidnapped by a terrorist group after being mistaken for the Google founder of the same name, or – worst of all – the bizarrely convoluted story about the bureaucrat possessed by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi.

Even given this long-windedness, Six Suspects would have been a more convincing read if Swarup had stuck with the omniscient-narrator format. Instead, he has three of the suspects – the actress, the American and the thief – tell their own stories, and authenticity becomes a problem in these first-person passages. The actress says “so there I was, immersed in my private digital ecosystem” to describe her communing with an iPod. There’s no end to the puerile similes used by the lovelorn American (“I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking-chairs”; “I reckon a love like ours is scarce as hen’s teeth”), though they are amusing in small doses. And when “Munna Mobile”, the thief, goes to a Chinese restaurant in a five-star hotel for the first time, we get – purportedly in his own voice – this dubious wealth of description:
Brass lanterns hang from the ceiling, flame-spewing golden dragons adorn the walls. The furniture is elegant, rectangular mica-topped tables complemented by black, high-backed chairs. The waitress, a chinky-eyed girl clad in a long, slinky blue dress with dragon motifs and slits, welcomes me with the effusiveness normally reserved for heavy tippers.
Six Suspects is ridden with caricatures – from corrupt Indian politician, perpetually manipulating strings, to dumb, insular American who comes to love a third-world country (“where cows are worshipped like Goddesses rather than turned into steak”). It would be a mistake to over-stress this aspect of the novel – and to forget that people like Jagannath Rai and Larry Page really do exist – but the book’s use of these character types precludes any lasting insights into the workings of a very complex society struggling with injustice and disparity. Every nexus, every command issued by an oily politician is dealt with in straightforward cause-and-effect terms. The investigative journalist and the TV reporter (a Barkha Dutt stand-in, named – if you must know – Barkha Das) are sanctimonious. People speak in platitudes and articulate their flaws and motivations as if they were pinning easy-to-read labels on themselves for the edification of the reader. (“We hit people not to show our strength but to mask our weakness,” philosophizes a police inspector after an interrogation, “we pick only on the poor and the powerless, because they cannot hit back.”) Rarely do the bad guys bother to delude themselves that they are in some nebulous way working not for self-interest but for the greater good (which is something that happens all the time in the real world).

“Even murder can become addictive” is the final, anarchist sentence of Six Suspects. Swarup’s book is similar in some ways to another recently published novel, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which was about a lower-class man simultaneously resentful of and aspiring towards the lives of the privileged. When Swarup has someone point out that “there are occasions when murder is not only justified, it is a ritual of righteousness”, it vaguely echoes something said by Adiga’s protagonist, Balram Halvai: “Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi. But all I wanted was the chance to be a man – and for that, one murder was enough.” The difference is that the murder in The White Tiger is committed by someone who wants to step into his victim’s shoes, while the killing of Vicky in Six Suspects is to be seen as a wake-up call for a corrupt society. Adiga’s novel was more ironical, more attuned to how easily the leaders of a revolution can become the very thing they set out to destroy, but Six Suspects is powered by idealism. On more than one occasion, its generalisation of people and situations reminded me of Madhur Bhandarkar’s films, which
try to expose the dark underbelly of a social stratum by doling out clichés about it.

Except that while Bhandarkar at least deals with one issue at a time (the high-society-media nexus in Page 3, big-business corruption in Corporate, the politics of beggars’ cliques in Traffic Signal), Six Suspects tries to be a ready reckoner to all the contradictions and injustices in Indian society. Vicky Rai himself is a convenient amalgamation of many high-profile real-world offenders whose misdeeds – along with the justice system’s inability to prosecute them – have shocked middle-class India in recent years. (In the book’s first chapter – an improbably long and self-indulgent column written by an investigative journalist – we learn that apart from shooting the bargirl, Vicky has run over sleeping pavement dwellers in his BMW and killed endangered black bucks. Sounds familiar?) But there are numerous other allusions to burning topics of our time, so that you get the impression the author has a list of “points to be included” and is ticking them off one by one.

Call-centres make an appearance (Larry finds himself working in one and is confronted by an irate American customer who refuses to believe he is speaking to a real American), there are references to reverse-colonialism (“it has become almost de rigueur in Bollywood to have at least one song with some firang white dancers doing jhatka-matka at the bidding of our own desi brown-skinned actors”), the Bhopal gas tragedy, globe-trotting charlatans posing as holy men, the contrast between the glitzy mall culture and the lives of lower-class Indians, and the corruption that exists in every conceivable walk of life. There’s so much going on here that the book could almost have been sub-titled “An Encyclopaedia of the Social Issues Facing Modern India”, but somewhere amidst all this the novel that presumably set out to tell a coherent story is lost.


  1. "unwieldy, overwritten and under-edited" can be said of most novels by Indian authors that have come out recently, don't you think?

    Authors breed like rabbits while good editors are an endangered species! :-)

  2. hi, in general, i find your blog really interesting, but this Swarup review is a bit cheap. you are missing the point of the book entirely, and don't compare it to THE WHITE TIGER, which is more literary, written by a journalist whose burning passion was to be a writer and who has been writing all his life. He and Swarup will have mostly different markets. also, you should really check out the background before you rubbish an editor. Many authors will not take editing. Swarup may or may not be one of them, but i know for certain that he was not happy for his novel to be published without more cutting, but due to publisher's schedules, time ran out. Also, Swarup's books are not for intellectualizing, so don't even go there. I think he's pretty popular in the West, where his supposedly cheesy local references are not picked up. He is not translated into 32 languages for nothing. He has received great reviews from 'established' crime reviewers (nb The Times) who take the book for what it is, and not for what it isn't.

  3. Rada: a bit of a generalisation there, but yes, there is a shortage of good editors (relative to the proliferation of authors/wannabe authors). Thinking about it, I could also apply the "overwritten/unwieldy" tag to a few books that I really liked overall (e.g. Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva), but in those cases there was usually something else in the book that I felt compensated for its weaknesses. Six Suspects just didn't work overall for me.

    Anon: merely expressing what I felt about the book, and trying to articulate why I felt that way (which is all you can really expect from any reviewer). Whether or not it received great reviews from crime reviewers (or literary-fiction reviewers for that matter) is beside the point where my review is concerned; I'm necessarily going to present my own perspective, not someone else's.

    For what it's worth, I didn't think it worked as a mystery/thriller either (in case that's what you're implying by "taking the book for what it is").

  4. There was talk of his first novel being made into a movie by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting). I don't know what happened to that. I really think he is first and foremost a pulp writer who writes fast-paced interesting stories, not necessarily very well.
    I look forward to him moving to scriptwriting. There is potential there

  5. I look forward to him moving to scriptwriting. There is potential there

    Gauri: I'd agree. Haven't read Q&A, but based on what I've heard about it (and having read Six Suspects), Swarup seems to be full of interesting ideas.

  6. Well my view about these kind of books is that they are meant for the masses, who will take any pulp fiction like ducks to water.
    No matter what/how you edit it, it's not going to get any more intellectually stimulating :). They are only more flowery(and expensive) versions of those pulp books you get in railway stations
    Swarup's effort is no more creditable than any of that by the banal Shashi Tharoor

  7. No matter what/how you edit it, it's not going to get any more intellectually stimulating

    Kartik: yes, but it could have become more compact and internally consistent.

    About masses taking to pulp fiction - well, there is good pulp fiction and bad pulp fiction (as well as various other gradations between "good" and "bad").

  8. Since words about scriptwriting are being bandied about I thought I'd say, as a scriptwriter, that there is a sort of truism that bad books make for good scripts whereas a good book is hard to turn into a good film. Naturally there are often exceptions but that discussion can go on and on. What I do want to say in response thought, to the desire that Vikas Swarup etc. should mere pet pe laat marofy, is that bad prose writers don't really make make good scriptwriters. ! Anyway, I haven't read either book, but I've been reading all those triumph-of-mediocrity celebrations in the media about how we now have genre/pulp fiction writers of chick-lit, murders and middle class professions. Having read many of these books I just don't understand what the readers or editors are thinking because it's rare to find a real page turner among these. I keep praying, God please, show me one chick-lit chick whose got rhythm, one thriller that thrills, one protagonist who will put more than his little toe in the gobar. But God she just says, all I can do to forgive you for your past sins is not make you a reviewer. The rest of the pain is your free will. I don't know if there are enough good editors or not, but there's lots of sloppy writing promoted and praised with alacrity for sure. Anyway, who asked me to go on and on? Sorry, deadlines make me a procrastinating blog reading commentator.

  9. amazing post.sir, i've a query. please tell about trilok kapoor, the lesser known member of the illustrious kapoor khandan.was he a failure?

  10. Heh, I agree with Rada.
    Instead, he has three of the suspects – the actress, the American and the thief – tell their own stories, and authenticity becomes a problem in these first-person passages.
    Funny how the same technique worked so brilliantly in Pamuk's My Name is Red, no?

  11. E of B: yes, but as always what matters isn't the idea (multiple narratives in this case) but how well it's executed. Also, the use of the technique in My Name is Red wasn't meant to be realistic (there are first-person narratives by a coin, a dog etc); it was a playful novel and Pamuk had space to experiment in. But the structure of Six Suspects requires that the voices of the actress, the thief and the other characters be credible (or "authentic", as we reviewers are over-fond of saying!).

  12. I agree with the review.... the book does drag with Tribal's forays across the country and the American getting kidnapped in Kashmir ...but let's give the writer credit for his skill to blend individual stories into a greater plot.The book does grip and the author is not trying to pretend to be a great intellectual.Comparing six suspects with My Name Is Red is blasphemy.

  13. It is a gr8 book a master piece with a very good ending. But yes it has been stretched like a rubber band :-)