Nilanjana S Roy’s Black River shines a light in the noir tunnel
As Nilanjana S Roy’s Black River takes off, the premise is familiar, the menace palpable. Eight-year-old Munia, the adored daughter of her single-parent father, is playing alone on a hot, silent day in a village on the Delhi-Haryana border. Briefly, you wonder if the book will be the OTT brand of noir — prurient horror masquerading as “gritty”, that tired cliche. However, a few pages in, the crime has been committed, and the book starts revealing itself for what it is: powerful, clear-eyed, unsentimental but not without heart.
Munia is dead; Chand, her shattered father, has sunk into himself; Ombir, the jaded cop, has big battles and small indignities to fight; the village is responding to grief with violence. The plot of the book is familiar enough, but what sets it apart is Roy’s prose: reflective, intelligent, fleshing out the setting and social-political context with the same surety as her characters, imbuing each with personalities, backstories, and tragedies.
The police procedure moves the story forward, while also throwing into relief everything that blights the village – under-equipped and overworked policemen, money and muscle running a parallel justice system, bigotry, and the promise of urbanisation that also carries the threat of exploitation. Ombir investigates the crime all too conscious of his limitations, while the village fixes its villain in a harmless madman who happens to be Muslim. Soon, there is pressure from the local high-and-mighty, Jolly-ji, to not ask too many questions.
Meanwhile, Chand is struggling to find sense in a life he had so far lived for Munia, and decides to seek some comfort in the past. The book moves back to the time Chand was living in Delhi, rebelling against the narrowness of the village. It is here that Chand forms the two lasting relationships of his life – with Badshah Miyan, his employer, and Rabia, the wife of his friend – and Roy lets her writing go beyond crime and punishment, describing the migrant experience in all its humiliations and jubilations. In the passage where Chand, Rabia and her husband Khaled live by the Yamuna, Roy writes with evocative beauty without taking refuge in sentimentality. Rabia is everywoman, her matter-of-fact bravery has no time for grand speeches and gestures, but recognises the simple truth that life has to be lived.
Roy’s skills lie in her controlled prose, where horror is everywhere, but there is no descent into gore. By avoiding the spectacle of violence, she keeps the reader’s eyes trained on what causes the violence – the dysfunctional systems, the unchecked entitlements, the communal cauldron kept simmering. The lives of her characters are the black river, full of malaise, destined to follow an inexorable course.
The rising tide of bigotry is shown in all its destructive pettiness. In one scene, Rabia and her daughter-in-law walk through a throng of leering Hindu men, who thrust into their faces phones playing vidoes of lynchings and rapes. “To walk past the men, they have to walk through this wall of screams, through the sound of the pleas and lamentations…” The passage is chilling, forcing the reader’s attention to what it is far too often convenient to turn away from.
There are times the book falters. The grand finale is rather contrived and hurried. Roy has worked as a journalist, and that is apparent in her attention to descriptions and details, but these, at times, get in the way of the story. The rich villains are caricature-ish. Also, in a book that scrupulously ticks the boxes of all modern evils, caste is curiously absent. In an otherwise intelligent social commentary, caste finds only a passing mention: autopsies in rural areas are carried out by “under-qualified, knife-happy young men” because the upper-caste doctors don’t want to handle corpses.
The book is assured and compelling, most alive when focused on Ombir, Chand, and Rabia, products of and antidotes to their circumstances – proof that no matter how stifling the system, individual spirits can flare, connections form, friendships spark, human dignity salvaged from steaming piles of rot. That hope can float on any black river.