Avtar Singh’s Necropolis is a noir—hard-boiled hybrid set in Delhi, and perhaps about Delhi too. Even though the book is a crime thriller, the prose moves almost as a dirge or an elegy. But readers will, in all earnest, forgive this lack of tautness, as the characters themselves become emblematic of mystery. In DCP Sajan Dayal, a Ghalib-reciting cop investigating a series of murders, we have a phlegmatic, but not indolent, minder of a city that simmers under its surface. He isn’t your average cop—too straitjacketed in his investigation—looking for just the antagonist in a plot. He is a “connoisseur of webs and connections”. Author Avtar Singh deliberately etches Dayal to remove all familiarities with the Delhi cop, not because the real cops are nothing like Dayal—they could be, but to the layman, the uniform forbids intimate queries of taste in Urdu poetry, or even the penchant for particular investigation methods—but to prop him as a foil to Razia, a woman who moves with the night, corporeal yet shadowy, a socialite, an informer, even a vampire. Singh creates her to put Delhi in a body, a woman who doesn’t age, who is as seductive as she is even possibly murderous. Razia, eponymous of Slave Dynasty’s Sultana, who sat on Delhi’s throne once, is every bit as intriguing as she is fascinating. To propitiate such an infernal deity, Dayal had to be an Etruscan decadent, a poet.
Necropolis is fascinatingly contemporary, yet offers leisurely glimpses into Delhi’s history. It is part suspension of belief and part starkly real, but not in a schizophrenic way. Singh’s novel may not be magic realism to the hilt, but it does smack enough of it to lull the reader into thinking of it as so. The prose seems lyrical, but, at the same time, the reader will perhaps be left bewildered with the liberal use of quaint words. It is like listening to Ghalib’s poetry, in thrall of the sound of the words and their vague familiarity, but with an incomplete understanding of Urdu.