Sairam Krishnan's Reviews > Red River, Blue Hills

Red River, Blue Hills by Ankush Saikia
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really liked it

Somehow I've always believed that fiction can tell you more about a place than nonfiction, and this is coming from someone who reads and writes narrative nonfiction seriously. I picked Ankush Saikia's book up on a Kindle sale, primarily because I've always wanted to read something about India's northeast. There's a bit of personal history there: I started school in Shillong, in the Indian Air Force radar station up in the outer hills. I have vague memories of a hauntingly beautiful landscape and its people. Of collecting hail in a plastic bucket as it rained down from the heavens. Of the Khasi I learnt naturally at school and have now forgotten. Of a culture so rooted to the earth the rains dictated every important affair.

What did I lose by not growing up there, I've always wanted to know. I've never really found a book (or books) that answered, in any way, this question for me. Janice Pariat's collection of short stories, Boats on Land, is one exception. But apart from that, I've found nothing.

I did not expect too much of Red River, Blue Hills; but I still wanted to see what it could tell me. As it turned out, it told me a lot. I'll say it outright - this is much more than just a murder mystery, and it also is an excellent thriller. Saikia surprised me right at the outset. His protagonist is not a northeasterner in Delhi looking down upon the vacuous ignorance of the capital. That would have been easy; that was what I expected. Saikia turned the tables on me, the reader, magnificently. Varun Mehta is a member of the Delhi elite, a rich owner of a hotel. And it is through his privileged, and in many ways spoiled eyes, do we see the northeast.

This, on the level of the idea itself, is just brilliant. The writing that this feeds is even better. As I read the first few chapters, I was overjoyed. This guy knew exactly what he was doing. I had my guide to the abode of the clouds, and I was totally in for the ride.

Saikia knows his Delhi. And the way he guides us through its demarcated spaces, its markets, its people, is sheer mastery. The intricacies of Delhi social movement and etiquette that he shines a light on are in itself worthy of some study. He has written a few books before, and you can see that the writing is taut and well-honed: comfortable reading. The story starts as soon as you do, and there's no let-down in the pace. And yet, murder mystery that it is, Saikia doesn't flinch from sharp, clear-eyed observations and commentary that make you stop and think. An example:

"But that was the tragedy of India, he thought, the half-bakedness of things. especially at this particular time in its history. Old knowledge fading, and a tacky newness spreading."

From the first part, set in Delhi, the northeast is a presence. Descriptions of food, social problems, shady characters, all set it up for an explosive second half, set where the novel was always going: to the northeast. Again, Saikia is great with food, characters, and places, creating an atmosphere of intimacy that gets you down into the narrative. The characters are somehow always eating and drinking, and so are you.

But it's Saikia's knowledge of north and northeast India that makes this book what it is. For someone who doesn't understand the region, this is much more than a primer. In Varun and Noy's story, Saikia tells us the story of two entire generations at a certain point in time. Varun is someone shaped by Delhi, even if he grew up in the northeast. Saikia makes this point when Varun waits outside a house, with a metal rod in his backseat, to beat someone up. This is the macho, posturing north-Indian male he ridicules, and yet shows us, so we know what he is talking about. Noy is the product of a forgotten region suddenly thrown into the future, a generation caught between revolutionary insurgency and plain materialism; and yet, she is also someone with a past, who can survive in the badlands of the northeast: tough, badass. They are both sparkling portraits.

I've tried hard to touch upon all the things that made an impression on me in this book, without spoiling the story or the plot for anyone reading. I enjoyed it tremendously, as I said, and I hope it gets the wider readership it deserves. In an age of shitty romance novels and extraordinarily bad writing, that India has writers of the calibre and ambition of Saikia is something to be celebrated.
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Reading Progress

April 6, 2016 – Started Reading
April 6, 2016 – Shelved
April 10, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Deepika (new)

Deepika Woah, should pick this up sometime!

Pramathesh Borkotoky What an accurate review. You should read his other books as well.

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