“Delhi has no soul,” says rookie reporter Abishek Dutta to his boss, veteran reporter Amir Akhtar — who lobs back with a stinging response: “That is bullshit. It is only outsiders who say that.” Akhtar is a conscientious Delhi loyalist, memorably essayed by journalist-writer Somnath Batabyal in his debut novel, The Price You Pay.
Batabyal has to an extent done for Delhi what several writers have attempted with other great cities — humanised and explored the angst-ridden inner city that supports the visible big city.
William Dalrymple’s appreciative words lead the reader to expect a certain level of clarity, sensibility and wit. Thankfully, for the most part, one’s hopes are realised. Batabyal is a seasoned journalist who knows his beat well. There is not one false note in this very topical thriller.
Delhi is presented and explained with loving care and pitiless precision (occasionally sharpened by Dilli boli). The thriller part seems an afterthought to what could be termed a portrait of present-day Delhi. But it’s an engaging yarn nevertheless, about a don and his female accomplice, resurfacing in their old territory; about a kidnapping being planned by the duo, and anticipated by the Delhi police; about middlingly corrupt cops and idealistic ACPs. It’s about the omnipresent Delhi media, both print and electronic; about young enthusiastic newbie reporters, know-it-alls, seasoned veterans, cynical and jealous journos, who are unable to stomach a new star…it’s a relevant world that seems to be a by-product of the author’s decade in journalism.
You also have the Delhi denizen, be it Monika-the-moll’s sacrificial lamb Amit (educated, clueless, upper middle class, fan of U2 and Calvin-Hobbes); or Matera, smiling survivor, poor, crooked, principled, informant friend to Akhtar. In between these two extremes stands the novel’s protagonist Abhishek Dutta, young, earnest, intelligent, middle-class aspirant, like so many Indians. Abhishek’s interactions with police press and ordinary Delhiites form the substance of this multi-stranded tale. The strands intermingle and move the novel along to a finish that fizzles instead of sizzling. Though in the process of getting there, the author does justice to his subject, Delhi, reminding one of earlier books on the same subject, notably William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns (about a year in Delhi). The difference is that Batabyal’s book is presented as fiction.
The story: Abhishek Dutta, educated in Benares, Kolkata and Delhi, attempts to get a foothold in the Delhi press scene. Will this soft-spoken import survive this tough world? Surprisingly, yes. Beginner’s luck envelops our young man and keeps him on a winning streak, right up to the conclusion — but, along the way, he learns his lessons too. And teachers are aplenty; for a start, there’s DCP Uday Kumar, the battle-weary Bihari, nicknamed the Dirty Harry of the Delhi police (for his humble origins and survival instincts). In fact, Uday’s ideas and words contribute greatly to the wit that bubbles through the book; the DCP’s thoughts on his squeaky-clean ACP Mayank: “He was scrupulously honest, but one could get around that.”
Equally engaging is the Delhi media circus scenario. Amir Akhtar is a well fleshed out character. Crime beat veteran and chief reporter Akhtar is his own man, unafraid of the police, unbothered by a changing world. Abhishek’s persistence pays off and Amir takes on the task of mentoring this unlikely-looking softie into the tough world of crime reporting. Abhishek, for his part, finds himself interacting continuously with the media and police personnel at all levels, each encounter providing valuable lessons. His stint with glamorous TV reporting is an eye-opener; Abhishek learns to look beyond superficialities and survive newsroom politics with dignity.
While Abhishek’s scoops and victories (along with amusing peeks into sub-editorial gaffes) provide the tale’s padding, it is Batabyal’s asides on Delhi that particularly prove enlightening. For instance, one learns that the ‘once affordable neighbourhood’ of Saket has been transformed ‘into another upmarket Defence Colony clone’. More to the point, the author writes with empathy about old home owners and retirees benefiting due to the consumer boom, as builders bought them out and consequently “old-timers no longer had to suffer the indignity of their children’s fluctuating generosity”. Thus do people adapt while cities change.
The author takes particular care to track Delhi’s transformation — from a sleepy government town to a crime and corruption capital. And in fact a corruption case from the 2010 Commonwealth Games helps provide the stage on which the story’s final act gets played out.
The bizarre kidnap involves an amoral tech-savvy gangster playing the role of a corruption crusader even as his own future is being secured; and the resolution happens on live television, with police, press and public as audience. The farce quickly concludes — and yet I find myself feeling mildly dissatisfied.
For me the book worked — but more as a social critique, less as thriller.