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Sunday, 19 January 2014





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Exploring voices for Indian thriller fiction

Ankush Saikia

The past two decades or so have seen Indian fiction in English diversify and establish a very distinct identity of its own in the stratosphere of the international publishing and contemporary literature. Indian authors mainly gained wide attention in the Anglophone world as presenting a very hard hitting culturally enriched picture of their heritage and the issues that they face in the modern world taking on the strong postcolonial identity argument.

But Indian fiction -writing has not latched onto that one niche and streamlined to cater to a western market alone that is allured mainly from the exoticism the East presents through the windows of literature.

Today the Indian publishing industry offers the world of literature fiction modern fiction ranging from mythology, romance, erotica, to the more 'pulp fiction' types and mass market popular 'chick lit' genres. And in this ever growing array of fiction writing 'Thriller fiction' too is certainly making its presence on the Indian fiction scene.

A prolific novelist

In this article I present an interview with prolific Indian novelist Ankush Saikia, focusing on his latest novel The Girl from Nongrim Hills (Penguin, India) which is a noir thriller set in the lush cool hill city named Shillong which is the capital of the state of Meghalaya, in the North East of India.

Saikia is a 38-year- old author whose works of fiction published to date include Jet City Woman (Rupa publishers, India) which was his debut novel, Spotting Vernon and other stories (Rupa publishers, India) a collection of eight stories that takes the reader to stories that unfold in various settings that range from the East Indian state of Assam to London.

Presenting the whirlwind of urbanism and its share of romance, vice, glamour and dangers and whatnot that will overwhelm a small town boy who makes a move to the 'big city' of Delhi.

In this regard Sakia's debut novel perhaps may be thought of as an 'intra-Indian migrant story' as opposed to the more internationally known Indian 'migrant novel' where the scenario is about how Indian immigrants struggle in the western world with its abundance of rewards and prejudices that engulfs people from the East.

Saikia who was born in Tezpur, Assam, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, Assam and Shillong in Meghalaya. He has worked for India Today magazine, Sage Publications, and with more works of fiction on the cards will surely offer much more to the world of contemporary fiction in time to come as a writer.


Question: How did you get on the path to becoming a novelist? What the aims and motivations that led you to become an author?

Answer: I read quite a bit as a child, probably due to the encouragement of my parents, and this continued till I was a teenager. There were people on both sides of the family who had books at home. At some point, when I was around 17 I guess, I decided I would try and write a book.

That was how it started. It is a hard and tough route to follow, but if you get it right commercially and critically then that is very satisfying. I feel I have this responsibility towards my readers to keep entertaining them and informing them.

Q: Your novel The Girl from Nongrim Hills is, in terms of fiction genres, classified as a 'noir thriller'. How widespread is the readership in India for fiction of this genre compared to others such as postcolonial or mythology or romance, which perhaps are themes now Indian fiction is getting noted for internationally?

A: Not very widespread, and part of the reason for that is we've not had well written thrillers in India. That is starting to change now, and with better commercial books starting to appear in India in genres such as crime and horror the market for the same will definitely increase.

Q: Your novel unfolds in Shillong. The hill station is undoubtedly integral to the story's 'landscape' so to say. In fact, a review I read online about your book says - 'Take the city out of the story and you lose its soul.' What was the reason for you to choose this particular location of all places in India and not choose a city which would be better known internationally?

A: I grew up in Shillong and know the city well. As the story came to my mind, I saw clearly that the scenes would work well within various locations in this very quirky and individualistic city.

In a way I think it's an advantage in setting your story in a place very few people know about. Of course the North East of India, where Shillong is located, is seeing a new interest from the rest of India, from which it had always been a bit remote.

Principal characters

Q: Tell us a bit about the principal characters Bok and Kitdor. How true to life are they? How were the 'character constructions' done? Who provided you inspiration for these characters?

A: The brothers are a composite of boys I have met and known and observed in this city. And in that sense they are absolutely true to life. The 80s rock that Bok loves is the sort of music me and my friends listened to in school and college.

Q: How long did it take you to write this novel and what sort of 'fact finding' and 'soul searching' did you engage to build up what you needed?

A: It was written over a period of 10 months. Chiki Sarkar, the publisher at Penguin India, persuaded me to enlarge a novella I had written and we ended up with the novel. Most of the book was within me-there wasn't much soul searching or inspiration required. What took time and what was a challenge was fine-tuning the plot of the novel and resolving all the issues at the end.


Q: In the online review I mentioned earlier the reviewer said your novel is ideal to be made into a movie. How do you feel about that? Would you consider writing The Girl from Nongrim Hills as a screenplay? Have you yet explored the possibilities of a screen adaptation?

A: If someone made a quality movie out of the book then I would be very pleased, not the least because it would show a different way of looking at the North East of India.

I might consider doing a screenplay out of it, depending on who approaches me. Some enquiries have been made by people in Delhi and Mumbai, so let's see what happens next!

Q: Have you started on your next book? What lies ahead on your path as a writer?

A: My third novel (and fourth book) will be out from Westland in the second half of 2014. It's called Red River, Blue Hills, and is a thriller set in Delhi and North East India. At present I'm working on a crime novel set in Delhi, a city where I lived for over a decade. What lies ahead? Writing more books I hope, books that people buy and read and talk about!

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