BLACK RIVER, A GRITTY literary thriller set mainly in the village of Teetarpur, a few hours from New Delhi, is a poignant and mostly fast paced story of a father searching for his child’s killer. It begins with the murder of a woman, and of a child, Munia, who happens to be an eyewitness. Chand’s life is shattered when his daughter, eight-year-old Munia, is found hanging from a tree on his small land holding. When he and his brother arrive, they find a Muslim carpenter — driven witless by his own tragedies — sobbing by her feet. But before the villagers can lynch the man, Sub-Inspector Ombir Singh who has known Munia since she was born, steps in. He promises Chand he will make sure the law takes its course and justice is done within a week.
The suspects include a cross-section of rural India: rich neighbours buying up land to develop it into shopping malls, factory supervisors, nautch girls, and fixers with unsavoury predilections. Ombir Singh and his deputy—both local men who want justice done—begin the difficult task of sorting through the suspects some of whom are implicated in other crimes. They have to be ready with a list for a “Delhi boy” SSP Pilania who has been sent from the capital to crack the case.
The book is structured in five sections: ‘Teetarpur, 2017,’ ‘The Yamuna Years (Black River refers to the Yamuna river)’, ‘Reasonable Doubt’, ‘Inquiries’, and ‘Reckoning’. While the second section—Chand’s lyrical and poignant recollections of his life as a migrant worker in Delhi and of his two dear Muslim friends—slows the pace and takes us away from the murder investigation, we are soon back on track with Ombir Singh and his well-connected deputy. Their wily moves to find the truth while ducking retribution from local notables as they comb through the suspects, spotlight the woes of a policeman stuck in the hinterland.
While the identity of the killer wouldn’t come as a surprise to seasoned crime fiction readers, Roy’s easy style, lyrical prose, and layered narrative carry us through to a nail-biting and satisfying finish. Along the way, Roy delivers on some of the main elements of fine crime fiction: a dark and sombre setting, a relatable protagonist with a clear-eyed sense of what he can and cannot get away with, and an incisive commentary on present-day social and political conflicts in India. The themes—corruption, marginalisation of minorities, the fear of the weak held in thrall to the unscrupulous and the heartless, the manipulation of the law— are tackled by Roy with a sure touch.
In Chand’s recollections of his life as a migrant worker in Delhi and his Muslim friends, Rabia and Badshah Mian, we inhabit the lived experience of Muslims in a Hinduising society. “Friendships are forged in the cracks of the walls created by politics and ideology,” Chand says when they arrive in the village after Munia’s murder.
Roy evokes the taste of grief through the lyrical setting of the river, the undulating fields, the dark huts, sweat mopped from foreheads, the smells of woodsmoke and kerosene fumes, a sliver of the moon visible through tarpaulin-covered planks, the box of fears Rabia has kept so tightly closed, to create a vivid sense of a rhythm of life shaken up not only by the tragedies but also by the political upheavals.
And in Ombir Singh, we have a nuanced protagonist, someone who understands and makes his peace with what is needed to survive in his job, someone who nevertheless manages to be moral and decent without being priggish, and despite the hurdles, never wavers in his goal to find the killer.
In this novel, there are no heroes, and it is not a novel with the detective as a hero or with the bereaved as the heroic figure, Roy says in an interview. Yet, as readers, that is precisely how we feel about Ombir Singh and Chand.
Shortlisted for the 2023 AutHer Awards, Black River is a superb and emotionally gripping police procedural.