Indian author Ankush Saikia explains why Shillong forms the basis of his new thriller.
In a foreword to Scenes of the Crime – A Guide to the Landscapes of Great British Detective Fiction, author PD James expounds the importance of setting in a crime novel. She wrote: ‘Firstly, it sets the mood of the work, whether suspense, horror, mystery, psychological darkness, or the excitement of vicarious danger... Setting both influences and reveals character and can profoundly influence plot and have symbolic importance.’
In Ankush Saikia’s thriller, The Girl from Nongrim Hills, the setting of Shillong in India, his hometown, is as important as a character. Donbok, popularly known as ‘Bok’, a guitarist with a Shillong-based wedding band, gets entangled in a vicious plot when his brother loses money in an arms deal trip to Nagaland and finds himself in bad company. Bok not only has to save his brother’s life but also avoid getting lured by a mysterious woman whose intentions seem to be misleading from the first meeting.
Shillong is unpredictable. The ever changing weather and idyllic settings are mixed with a tinge of nostalgia. The old Pinewood Hotel, a Shillong landmark, along with the hustle-bustle of the Polo Bazaar and the street food stalls and clubs are all intertwined to create a gripping atmosphere.
Saikia is not a big fan of reading thrillers. He credits his love for the genre to films and Graham Greene’s novels for the quick, almost cinematic pace of his books. The author, who grew up in Madison in Wisconsin, America, then moved to Assam and then onto Shillong, has worked in journalism as well as publishing in New Delhi for more than a decade.
Currently, he is working to support himself as a full-time writer. Saikia’s third novel, Red River, Blue Hills, a thriller set in Delhi and the northeast, is slated to be published next year. Here, Saikia talks about why he set
his story in Shillong.
Where did the inspiration for the book come from?
It started off with the notion of money changing hands in a hotel room in Shillong. Then came the characters of the girl and the guitarist. I realised I had the elements of a noir story and so I developed it along those lines, concentrating on the dark side of Shillong and northeast India. What I ended up with is, I hope, a suspenseful noir thriller.
Why did you decide to focus on the darker side of Shillong?
Several instances of extortion, arms smuggling, kidnapping and embezzlement of central funds are only too common in the region. So I am writing about things that are actually happening. Over the years, one consequence of the embezzlement of central government funds and the presence of armed groups in the region has been the creation of a cynical and dangerous section of youths without any beliefs, who feel justified in getting their hands on money by any means whatsoever. And while that may be harmful for society, it does provide the basis for a pretty good noir story.
Your book reads like a film script. Was that a conscious decision?
Not really. I was more concerned with making the story move along quickly, even as the deadline for the guitarist’s brother to return the money comes nearer and nearer. And I enjoy writing scenes with action, as opposed to mere description. When the book came out a lot of people said it is like a film script, so it might end up on a screen near you one day. Who knows!
The Girl from Nongrim Hills, Dhs50, is available from www.amazon.com.