Ankush Saikia is the author of “Dead Meat” and “The Girl from Nongrim Hills”, a noir thriller set in Shillong. He has worked for India Today magazine, Sage Publications and Dorling Kindersley. He was shortlisted for the fourth Outlook/Picador-India non-fiction writing award (2005).
NAW- Tell us about your latest offering, Dead Meat. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
Dead Meat—which is a phrase signifying a person who’s about to meet an unpleasant fate—introduces us to a detective by the name of Arjun Arora, an ex-army man operating in the shady corners of the capital city of New Delhi. The novel is about the detective himself, his past and present life, and also about the city of Delhi, where corruption and wealth exist check by jowl with poverty and despair. I lived in Delhi for more than a decade, and saw a lot of the city in all that time there. I always wanted to do a story that showed the various scales of human activity in the city as well as the corruption brought about by the proximity to big money and power.
NAW- Tell us about the character of Arjun Arora. How did you develop the character?
I thought a detective would be an ideal character through which to explore Delhi. I also wanted someone who was an outsider (hence his half-Punjabi half-Nepali lineage), who was tough (hence his army background), who was troubled mentally (hence his horrific experience in Iraq), and who had a deep sense of nostalgia (hence a childhood spent in the North East). A drifter almost, a loner who comes to be washed up in Delhi and survives there as best as he can. Once I had that background in mind, it was a matter of trying to figure out how that person would react in various situations.
NAW- How did you research for Dead Meat? There was a sensational murder case where the victim was thrown in a tandoor. Or did you get your inspiration from some other crime?
Yes, the infamous Delhi tandoor murder case was in my mind when I was thinking of a plot, as was match-fixing in T20 cricket and corruption in government departments. I didn’t need to do much research, there were just a few things I needed to look up on the internet.
NAW- You have chosen Delhi as the location for Dead Meat unlike your previous work. How difficult is it setting a novel in a place like Delhi? Did you actively research the locations before writing about them?
As I said, I lived in Delhi for over a decade, and have had a varied experience of the place. It’s a city I know well, its people and places, so again I didn’t need to really research topics. It was more like looking certain things up.
NAW- Dead Meat also focuses on Delhi’s class society and the dysfunctional personal life of the protagonist is a reality today. The class struggle is inherent in Dead Meat and so is the flawed character of Arjun. Did you purposely develop the character this way giving it different shades?
The attraction of a detective story for a writer—and its pleasure for a reader—lies in the various levels of society, high to low, it can enter into. So such a story would, in the inequal society of an Indian city, also have an element of portraying the class struggle. I purposely tried to develop a flawed character, one who would struggle with his own problems even while investigating a case.
NAW- Most crimes are committed for a monetary motive. What made you go for the clichéd theme in Dead Meat? It would have worked better if it was a crime committed out of passion.
I’ve not thought about this actually! Maybe the issue of corruption and match fixing lent itself more easily to a crime involving money. But what you say is true. Maybe his next case will have Arjun Arora investigating a crime of passion!
NAW- For any writer, it’s a bit dangerous to get stuck in a genre. You have been writing noir thrillers such as The Girl from Nongrim Hills and then following it up with Dead Meat. Will we see you exploring more genres with your future works?
I’m sticking with this genre for the time being. My next book (out in November 2015 from Westland), Red River, Blue Hills, is a thriller set in Delhi and North East India. Then there’s another Arjun Arora crime novel out in the first half of 2016 (which I’ve just finished working on). And maybe I’ll do another crime thriller set in North East India next. I think sticking to a genre can work for a writer by giving him a consistent image in the eyes of readers.
NAW-Writing is often a lonely job. How do you plan your book? Do you write in fits and spurts or plan the plot meticulously beforehand?
It is a lonely job, and frequently tedious, especially when things aren’t working out. My books have a bit of both—they are loosely plotted out beforehand, but I can also change things depending on how I think the story is progressing. I try and write a few hours every day.
NAW- You are a full time writer so how do you make ends meet? Do you have to deal with horrible relatives or friends who don’t approve of your choices?
I am not a full-time writer yet! So I have other things I’m involved in, including doing the occasional article for newspapers and magazines. My relatives and friends have thankfully been supportive of my writing so far.
NAW- What are you working on next?
Another crime thriller!