Mohan Sikka And Delhi Noir

Mohan Sikka


The Noir series of books have proved an eye opener for many literary fans over the years, and when its focus turned to the city of Delhi in 2009, there was much to talk about. Edited by Hirsh Sawhney, Delhi Noir is a scintillating collection of tales, by some of the best contemporary Indian writers around. We see that this contemporary city is mired by contradictions, crime, sex and in some quarters complete moral bankruptcy. This is the darker side of Delhi, which you can read about in the crime section of the newspapers, but whose human dimension leaves much to be explored.

Writer Mohan Sikka, an eternal traveller, born in Calcutta, raised partly in Zambia, schooled in India and finally settling in Brooklyn, New York, was approached by Sawhney to contribute to Delhi Noir. His tale, titled The Railway Aunty, was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing of all. Centred on a naive young man who moves to Delhi, and takes lodgings with his Aunt, he quickly becomes entangled in a game of lust and deceit with an older married woman. What follows is the loss of innocence and the dark cloud of depravity and deception comes to overwhelm him.

The Railway Aunty stood out as a beautifully dark literary gem, so much so, that film director and producer Ajay Bahl has turned the tale into a film, titled B.A. Pass, written by Ritesh Shah and starring Shilpa Shukla and Shadab Kamal, amongst others. The film garnered much critical acclaim at film festivals, and saw Sikka’s story reach a wider audience. It will be released nationwide in the next few months. B.A. Pass will also be showing at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 1st.

I had the chance to speak with Sikka about the story, the film and also his opinion on what the city of Delhi is becoming, as we enter in to the second decade of the 21st century.

Firstly, what did you feel about contributing to Delhi Noir?

I was thrilled and frightened! There is some sex and violence in my other work, but here perversion, crime and brutality were the very elements from which I had to create a story. Like any good Indian boy, I wondered what my parents would think! I knew this wouldn’t be a story that was discussed at their dinner parties, especially given the railway references (my father is a retired Indian Railways officer)!

Would you say that writing your story was a cathartic experience?

It was certainly transformative. The actual writing process is part pleasure and part intense pain, a kind of masochistic experience. One has to take characters that march in one’s mind and wrestle them onto the page, then make these imaginary people hurt and amuse each other for endless hours until a plot emerges, and finally, shed blood and tears into interminable drafts to complete the story. At least that’s how it works for me.
This particular story has something in it that seems to connect with people. Perhaps it’s the idea of sexual deviance within a very ordinary, middle-class situation, of dark forces lurking within our everyday experience and our own homes. In any case, two separate filmmakers wanted to option the story, so there is clearly something cinematic about it. This story wants expression beyond the page, and that’s a beautiful and unusual thing.

Your story The Railway Aunty was particularly compelling, where did it come from?

From my unconscious and my imagination! I was challenged by the editor of Delhi Noir to write a literary crime story, something I’d never done before. I knew the Paharganj area in Delhi and realized it was the perfect location for a story about lust, deceit and violence. Located between Old and New Delhi, Paharganj is a jumble of government colonies, temples and dargahs, ancient bylanes and cut-rate markets. Along with an active sex and drug trade in the budget hotels that dot the area. In 2008 I went to explore the area first-hand, since I hadn’t been there in years and I had some half-formed story ideas that I wanted to test “on the ground.” Walking through the bustling streets I stumbled into an old Christian cemetery – a space of reflection and calm set back from the madness of the market area. It’s noir possibilities immediately struck me, a place where someone dealing with upheaval, violence and death might come to lose themselves for an hour and find some peace, perhaps the only place where rest is possible for that person. I had a moment of inspiration sitting there under a tree – I know it sounds hackneyed, but it’s true – and I “saw” some of my characters and their relationships: a long-faced cemetery caretaker, a sexy railway wife from a nearby colony, and of course, Mukesh, my “innocent”, chess-playing orphan. Right there the pieces began to move in my mind, and the characters began to pull and push at each other, and I thought I might have an interesting story.

I lived in a railway colony in Paharganj as a teenager and I used the very particular world of the officers’ wives as a plot ingredient. So some things I used from memory and others I made up. The younger man-older woman dynamic is completely constructed, I promise!

With a film made based on The Railway Aunty, directed by Ajay Bahl, how did you feel about this?

Ajay Bahl told me he found the story visually compelling, and that was part of what made him want to adapt it to the screen. That’s high praise from a filmmaker. Looking back I can see that the story’s grounding in location – the cemetery, the Paharganj colony quarters and streets – definitely creates strong visual elements.

I think the film medium pulls out and enhances certain themes in the story. The blinking neon lights, the smoky streets, the glitz and garbage of Pahargan, all reflect the thwarted dreams, despair and suffocation of the characters in a very interesting way. Crime “comes home” in a frightening manner, because in the betrayals and assaults between the characters we see how much violence and coercion are part of our everyday lives. The film breaks the illusion that we are safe inside our middle-class bubble. Delhi appears like a dystopian dream on screen. The city becomes not just the setting for the story but also an agent in its own right, the hardbitten, cynical, amoral character of noir, a character that takes great pleasure in its own cruelty.

Did you think the film B.A. Pass did your story justice?

Of course the story and the film are two different works of art, each with its own flavour and rules. Ajay and Ritesh Shah, the screenwriter, use some of my plot choices and add some of their own, which is their prerogative as artists writing for a different medium and in a different language. I think the more important question is whether the film does justice to its own vision. Each viewer has to answer that for themselves, but I would unreservedly say it’s worth a viewer’s time. From my perspective Ajay not only captures the despair of the story, but builds it to new and relentless heights, until the escalation becomes hard to watch in the best possible way. The actors are amazing, including the supporting cast. So wonderfully, typically Punjabi. The lighting and cinematography are superb. Ajay’s commitment to the physical details of the story is very gratifying. It’s hard to come away from the film psychically undisturbed. It takes some great risks. Go see it.

In your opinion has the city of Delhi slipped into a quagmire of moral depravation?

Yes. Yes. It’s absolutely fantastic from a writer’s perspective. More, I want more!
Jokes aside, I will say that this is a complicated issue. On one hand we know that Punjabi-style middle-class morality serves to preserve existing, and quite coercive, power dynamics (men over women, parents over children, masters over servants). So it’s good, if you believe in some version of social agency and equity, that this kind of morality is being challenged. On the other hand, we also know that forces have been unleashed in India that are very hard to contain: the Oz-like promise of the new economy after centuries of depravation, the hopes and dreams of the legions of migrants coming into the city, the opportunities and illusions created by social media. The “moral depravation” that you speak of, I see as indicative of the limited choices most people have to express their very human desires and yearnings, and the large gap between their aspirations and what is possible, frustrations that are then expressed in deception and violence. On top of this is a still pervasive conservatism that doesn’t quite know how to respond to sexuality other than to repress and shame it, or to assert it in a brutal, performative ways. All this creates a quite potent mix in terms of social dynamics, and sadly, leads to terrible, terrible violence, especially against women, migrants and working people. Perhaps art allows us to express and release these demons, so that we can see all of ourselves more clearly, including our contradictions and our dark side. That’s my hope, anyway.

You can find out more about Mohan’s work at his website mohansikka.com. Delhi Noir is available on Amazon.com and Filpkart.com.









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