In conversation with Shillong-based novelist Ankush Saikia
By Aiyushman Dutta
In the field of English writing in the Northeast, a number of new voices have emerged in recent times who have managed to earn critical acclaim for their brilliant depiction of the hitherto hidden life of people living in the north-eastern periphery of India. One such powerful voice, who has earned immense popularity across the entire country within a relatively short period of time, is Shillong-based novelist Ankush Saikia who has, for the first time, successfully introduced and worked on the genre of crime and detective thrillers set in the Northeast, and elsewhere in India. Right from his first novel, Jet City Women, published by Rupa & Co in 2007, where he talks about life of north-easterners in Delhi, he has continued to write about people and places in this remote land.
From the time his first book published in 2007, he has continued to explore this new genre with a lot of success, and has over the years, published 6 critically acclaimed novels and a collection of short stories as well.
A former journalist who has travelled widely across the Northeast as well as the country, Saikia has emerged as one of the top-ranking English writers to have been produced from the region.As a writer and novelist, Saikia rose to instant fame with his 2013 novel, The Girl from Nongrim Hills – a crime thriller published by Penguin India and which is set in the locales of Shillong. Two years earlier, his collection of short stories, Spotting Veron and Other Stories, had been published by Rupa & Co. After that, he has earned a sort of fan following amongst the north-eastern youths once he wrote the detective Arjun Arora trilogy, comprising Dead Meat (Penguin India, 2015), Remember Death (Penguin India, 2016), and More Bodies Will Fall (Penguin India, 2018).
The detective Arjun Arora trilogy is a first of sorts as no one had previously worked on the genre of crime and thrillers with so much details about life in the Northeast that Ankush has put into his books. All of Saikia’s novels are either based in the Northeast or brings to life the varied colourful characters and locales of the region, which till now have not been adequately represented in popular commercial novels in the country.
A recipient of the Shanghai Writers’ Association’s international writers’ fellowship for the year 2018, Saikia was also shortlisted for the Outlook / Picador-India non-fiction writing competition in 2005. At present, he lives in Shillong where he helps out at his mother’s bakery in the Laitumukrah area of Shillong when he is not writing. Married to a lovely lady and the father of a six-year old son, Ankush Saikia is presently working on a book set in the north bank region of Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh.
I recently entered into an absorbing discussion with the writer to know more about his journey in the field of writing, how he decided to work on the genre of crime and detective thrillers set in the Northeast, and his future plans. Following are excerpts.
Q. At the outset, please tell us about your childhood, family and growing up days?
Ans: I was born in Tezpur, Assam in 1975.After a year in Assam, we left for America, where my father was doing his PhD in mathematics (and then teaching) at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. A few years later we returned to the North East, to Shillong, where my father joined the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). So I grew up in Shillong, and Tezpur and BiswanathChariali, where I would go during the winter holidays, and which were my mother’s and father’s places respectively. This was during the 1980s. It seems recent when I think about it, but there has been such a great change in all of these places: mostly more people, cars, buildings. And why not, almost 30 years have gone by. Shillong and Tezpur and Chariali were small towns then, something you can’t say about the first two places now. Life in those pre-liberalisation days was much slower than today, people had more time, and modest ambitions.
Q. Please tell us a bit about your education and your present work profile.
Ans: Nearly all of my education was done in Shillong—10 years at St Edmund’s School and then 5 more years at St Edmund’s College. In 1997 I moved to Delhi, where I did a couple of courses, advertising and then computers I think, while I tried to clear the CAT—which I didn’t—and neither did I get into Delhi University (in Economics, which I had as a honours subject), nor Jawaharlal Nehru University (in English). I had already written my first novel by then, which thankfully has never been published! A late collegefriend of my father’s (they were together at Ramjas College in Delhi) helped me get into a job, and that was how I managed to stay on in Delhi. In 2011 I returned to the North East. At present I help out with the bakery my mother runs in Shillong,
Q. How did you get interested in the world of literature?
Ans:I always read a lot, since I was a child. Some of my uncles and aunts from both sides of the family read quite a bit, and I grew up seeing books in our house as well. One of the first things my parents did when they returned from America was to enrol me in the State Central Library in Shillong—over the years (I still borrow books from them) I have never seen more than a handful of people there, except if there was maybe a concert going in the auditorium or some festival being held in the library grounds. I think I was around 16 when the idea came to me that I should try writing a book. Little did I know that it would take me 15 more years just to get published!
Q. You have made quite an impact in the genre of thrillers and detective novels. Were you apprehensive of setting the regional locales in your book?
Ans: I set out to write novels in English, as that was my strongest language (we only had Assamese as a 2nd language in school in Shillong, though I speak it fluently), and I had never planned to write crime novels or thrillers, it just happened to work out that way, maybe something to do with an interest in the darker side of human existence. Among the authors I read in school and college were several writers of Westerns (Louis L’amour) and then people like Hemingway, Graham Greene, Naipaul and RK Narayan, and I suppose they left me with an interest in places and people more than abstract ideas, and so when I started writing I suppose it was only natural that I turned to places I knew well—Shillong and Delhi, also Assam. As for the settings elsewhere in the North East—Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur—I had to go and do some research there, as I had never visited those places (apart from the Kameng region of Arunachal) while growing up.I would be more apprehensive writing about places I didn’t know.
Q. You are credited for ushering in a new wave in popular English writing in the Northeast. How would you like to define your style of writing?
Ans: It’s kind of you to mention it that way, but right from the beginning, and even now, I’ve always felt alone in the work I was doing, in the sort of books I was writing. I don’t wish to sound arrogant in any way, but I don’t think anyone has written something like Jet City Woman (students from the North East in Delhi), The Girl From Nongrim Hills (a crime thriller set in Shillong), or More Bodies Will Fall (a detective investigates the death of a girl from the North East in Delhi). And these books are extremely realistic, the only thing “invented” in them is the plot. As far as my style goes, I would say it comprises of a realistic and somewhat cynical look at the society around me.
Q. Do you feel that the unique NE locales and characters of your book have affected their commercial popularity or the way they are accepted by your reader?
Ans:If I had written crime novels set solely in “mainland” India, I think they might have done better than my books set in the North East or with a North East connection. But my style of writing is such that I usually need to know a place well before writing about it—so now that basically means only Delhi from “mainland” India (and even there, I’ve only made two trips since leaving the city in 2011, so I already feel like my knowledge of it is slightly dated). I would love to write about, for instance, the mining operations in tribal areas in central India, the hidden economy of the conflict in Kashmir, the history of Kolkata, to give a few examples, but that would mean time and effort and expenses—without a guaranteed payoff at the end. Maybe sometime in the future!
Q. Tell us a bit about The Girl from Nongrim Hills.
Ans:Many people assume the “girl” in question is a real-life person, with some even suggesting that the person on the cover is the girl herself! (It is a stock photo from Getty Images, shot somewhere in Europe I think). In fact, the editor and publisher found this image online and loved it, and told me they wanted to use it—the only problem was the girl had long hair in the manuscript. But once we’d agreed that it would make for a good cover, I went back to the manuscript and changed the few references to the girl’s hair. So another title could well be “The Girl who used to have Long Hair”! The book was really born out of a desire to write something set in Shillong that captured the grime and gritty locations, among others, of the city, a desire to write a noir crime story rooted in Shillong. The guitarist came first, then the standard noir ingredients: a mystery girl, money in a bag, guns. Here again, leaving the plot aside, I think I managed to recreate a very different Shillong, a truer Shillong, than what is conjured up by tourist pieces about the city.
Q. Is your character detective Arjun Arora an entirely fictitious character or has he been inspired by people you met in real life?
Ans:He is a fictitious character, yes. In many ways he is a typical noir protagonist: a loner, fond of the bottle, with a tormented past, sensitive in his own way. Then there are a few aspects from within me as well: the insider/outsider situation that comes about for many people in our country, the nostalgia for a simpler past, a dissatisfaction with the big city (Delhi)—I took these things and then increased them in intensity for the character, so that he is wrestling with very strong personal demons even as he delves into his cases. Another thing I realised only recently, after having written 3 books with the character: he goes deep into the lives of people who have disappeared—the accountant in Dead Meat, the actress from Lucknow in Remember Death, and the girl from Nagaland in More Bodies Will Fall—and almost seems to prefer their company to that of living people.
Q. What are you presently working on?
Ans: It’s something I’ve been researching and trying to write for the past 5 years (when I started writing the Arjun Arora series), and for which I only settled upon the writing approach just a few months ago. It’s a short book, under 250 pages, and I should finish the first draft soon, but it might change quite a bit while being revised. It is set in and around Tezpur, taking in the geographical stretch from the Brahmaputra to the foothills and up into the Kameng region of Arunachal. The backdrop is the near-total disappearance of the Chariduar reserve forest to the north-west of Tezpur, which at 460 sq km was one of the largest patches of forest in Asia, and of which only about 80 to 90 sq km remains today, while the story takes in a forest beat officer’s relationship with his son, the Bodoland movement, security operations targeting insurgents, and bits of family history and the larger history of the region. There are elements of a crime novel in it, but it is also an attempt to incorporate reportage and history into a crime story, and thus trying to rise above the plot-centric limitations of that genre.
Q. How do you find out time for writing from your professional workloads?
Ans:I help out with the bakery my mother runs in Shillong (Moinee’s Bakes in Laitumkhrah), and am lucky to be doing something that leaves me with quite a lot of free time for my writing.
(First published in melange, The Sentinel on July 29, 2018)