Ankush Saikia is the author of “The Girl from Nongrim Hills”, a noir thriller set in Shillong, and published by Penguin. 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 journey so far.
I was born in 1975 in Tezpur, Assam and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; Assam; and Shillong, Meghalaya. I worked in journalism and then publishing in New Delhi for over a decade, before returning to the North East. I’ve always read a lot, maybe because I had people on both sides of the family who read and because my parents read as well, and I think at some point in my late teens I decided I would try to write a book. I wrote a 60,000-word-long novel in longhand during my third year of college in Shillong, a book that is better off not being shared with the world!
NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘The Girl from Nongrim Hills.’ How did you get the idea for the book?
I was thinking of writing a noir story, more for my own entertainment than anything else, and it started off with the idea of a musician who gets caught up in a bad mess. The character of the girl came to me after that, and things just flowed from there.
NAW- What was your inspiration for The Girl from Nongrim Hills. It describes Shillong and its surroundings magnificently. Did you carry out any research for the book?
The almost-daily news of extortion, kidnapping, corruption, and killing in this region was something that inspired this book. This atmosphere of violence and cynicism lent itself quite easily to a noir treatment. I hardly had to do any research for this book: I grew up in Shillong and know the place well, while the day-to-day occurrences of criminal activities are common enough knowledge among the people of this region.
NAW- The North East has such a vibrant culture especially in relation to music. Any guy you meet from the North East can strum a guitar and so many groups perform there while the rest of India doesn’t even know about it. Was the rich musical heritage of the place an inspiration for developing the band and the guitarist theme around the novel?
Definitely. Though I wasn’t thinking about musical heritage as much as the 80s hard rock and metal we grew up listening to on pirated cassettes while in school and college.
NAW- How did you develop Bok’s character? Are there any like him in Shillong?
He sort of came to life on his own! I wanted a common every man from today’s hill towns in the North East. Yes, there are lots of youth like him in Shillong and in the North East, drifters who are out of step with the society they live in.
NAW- What made you delve into the noir genre, not many from India venture into this field. Were you apprehensive how the book would be received?
As I said, I was writing for my own enjoyment initially. It started off as a novella, which Chiki Sarkar at Penguin India happened to see, and like, and she persuaded me to enlarge it into a novel. I wasn’t really apprehensive, as I knew people who liked offbeat thriller stories would find the book interesting.
NAW- Tell us about your other works. How did your first book get published? Did you have to struggle or was it an easy ride?
I had two books published before The Girl From Nongrim Hills. It took a while to find a publisher for the first book.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
Of late glued to my Android phone going through Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and the like!
NAW- Name your five favourite books.
AS: A House for Mr Biswas / V.S. Naipaul, The Quiet American / Graham Greene, A Free Man / Aman Sethi, Wolf Hall / Hillary Mantel, The Rings of Saturn / W.G. Sebald
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
Westland are publishing Red River, Blue Hills in late 2014 or early 2015; it’s a thriller set in Delhi and North-East India. I’m working with Penguin Random House on a very dark crime novel set in Delhi featuring a private detective. Apart from that I’ve tentatively stated work on a thriller set in Assam.