From the dingy newly formed villages that are not quite villages, to the upmarket elite society of dinner parties and aristocracy, and from the almost other worldly charms of Delhi’s old ruins and tombs to the well-knitted network of swanky metro trains, yes, Necropolis is undoubtedly a memoir. Avtar Singh’s, a reporter’s, love letter to Delhi.
Narrated from the point of view of Deputy Commissioner of Police, Sajan Dayal, the story unravels itself on a crime scene, with a dead body of young man, tattooed, pierced and with a necklace of human fingers around his neck. With twists and turns, the novels touches on a surprisingly number of subtopics.
There are vampires and werewolves (with of course, the Twilight books and movies reference), there is the ghetto of Indian politics (with a generous garnishing of manipulations, and mind games and subtle arm-twisting), there is kidnapping and rape and a cult that believes itself to be vampires. This is the city of Zauq and Ghalib, and of Razia, the interest, passion and the antagonist of DCP Dayal. And then, there, in the middle of all, are three police officers.
There is DCP Dayal of the crime branch, with his robust charms, his undying love for all things old, his almost passionate possessiveness towards Delhi only matched by his incredible knowledge of the city. There is Smita, a young officer of the Indian police service who is discovering gradually what her services, her loyalties and what the city of Delhi means to her, and then there is Kapoor, the DCP’s subordinate. A man with family all around Delhi or what he likes to call, his ‘nephews’ who are sometimes local cops, who sometimes work at Delhi’s nightclubs and are always
there for help.
At some point you start to wonder which version of the city is really true. Smita’s Delhi which gives name and heritage to even those who are not born with it, whose mere ambitions are enough to make them the elite of the city? Or is it Kapoor’s Delhi that has given him numerous nephews, with connections and networks everywhere. Where a slight ‘wrong turn’ makes one fall in the black hole of destiny as what happens to one of his ‘nieces’.
Is the city just like Kapoor, which scares you by its exterior but gives you warmth when you come to know it better? Or is it Dayal’s Delhi of Mughals lying in their tombs as high rises are built around them, the city which has withstood everything, witnesses everything, still alive, still standing much like his love, Razia.
‘I know who you are, but not what to call you. Colonel sounds awfully formal.’ ‘These girls call me Razia. I don’t know why.’ ‘It fits. Delhi’s own sultana. Regal, powerful.’ ‘Dead, too, these past eight hundred years.’
‘A blink of the eye in this city’s history, surely.’ ‘Perhaps, Commissioner, but she’s still a bit before my time. But if the name pleases you, it is yours to use.’
Razia is, in every true sense, the city herself. She may come across as a mystery, a guardian angel of the city, a spirit of the city that has seen the times of Zauq and Ghalib, of the sultanate and the Mughals and even the British. She has witnessed it become a concrete jungle, she is a creature of the night, her involvements with the city’s underbelly of crime, of the city’s highest power players, she is everywhere but no one knows who she is. Of unknown age or family, she has come to exist perhaps like Delhi, on her own.
The novels talks of the stark realities of Delhi - the racism Delhi brutally exhibits towards what it thinks are the’ others’, the Africans, the countrymen from the north east. It talks about the sexism and bigotry that exists unaffected by education or sophistication, it talks about corruption inside the bureaucracy, the government, the crime, drug kingpins, the slumlords and gang wars. But intertwined with it are the words of poets long gone, the ancient trees and jungles of Mehrauli, the delicateness in the ‘adaah’ that accompanies Razia even when she is camouflaged as the colonel in the night club. The crime solving, gun welding police officer suddenly goes around humming Ajeeb dastan hai ye. You only wish the author had provided the songs and the poetry in Urdu for the readers. The English translation is not quite able to touch the heart like the Urdu words do.
One may start reading Necropolis expecting it to be a mystery or adventure but one who reads it solely expecting that, might be disappointed. There is the adrenaline and action but more importantly it gives you an insight into Delhi that most of us miss in our busy lives. One also wonders how relevant this novel might be for someone who has never been to Delhi or never lived in the city. Nevertheless, the novel is heartfelt, celebrating the city and also mourning for the loss of its past.
There are questions to be answered and introspection to be done by all who live here, about what makes this city so attractive to everyone who comes here.