Novel Excerpt: Man on a Bike

writing

Some scenes have a way of sticking in the head, like signposts. This one, taken out of Banquet on the Dead, is one that is close to my heart. My father, after having read the novel fully, said, ‘This is a bad book. You goofed up in many places. But that scene in which the inspector goes to Hamid Pasha’s house – that’s good.’

This is a ‘filler’ scene, in the sense that nothing much happens to move the story along. Inspector gets on a bike. Goes to the house of an old acquaintance. That’s about it. What makes it work, I think, is the atmosphere. The brief sights and sounds of Hanamkonda, of Tailors’ Street, of Vijaya Talkies Road – they bring the scene alive for a brief moment.

Whenever I feel homesick or nostalgic, I find myself re-reading this scene. I hope you like it too.


As Inspector Nagarajan eased his old Rajdoot off the driveway and got on the main road – a jeep would invite stares where he was going – he became aware of a faint ache behind his right shoulder. He did not flinch or respond in any way; that would mean acknowledging its presence. He tried to ignore it. What had the doctor said? It was not really there. It was his mind playing tricks.

He focused on his bike. Handle. Clutch. Brake. Gear. Release.

The bike lurched into motion in the direction of the Chowrastha. He tried to remember where Hamid Pasha’s house exactly was. How long had it been since he had seen him last? About a year? Yes, last Bakrid sounded about right. Then he had been living in one of those Muslim dwellings by the big sewer. He had not kept in touch with Hamid bhai, he knew. But he also knew Hamid bhai wouldn’t hold it against him. Neither of them was particularly good at social formalities. Even that previous visit on Bakrid was one of business.

He crossed Podduturi Complex and approached Tailors’ Street. It got its name some time in the eighties when, presumably, it teemed with tailor shops. But now you would struggle to find one. There were four grocers, two internet cafes, two clothes shops, three general stores, one hardware shop, and a litany of other bits and pieces – but no tailor shop.

However, one fact about Tailors’ Street remained unchanged from the time Nagarajan was a child. Then and now, Tailors’ Street was Hanamkonda’s ‘Old Hyderabad’. Less sensitive souls called it Pakistan. If Hanamkonda Main Road was the border, they said, Tailors’ Street was Pakistan and Vijaya Talkies Road, which branched off on the other side and sported a Devi temple at the very mouth, was India. It was a long-running joke in circles Nagarajan mingled in to tease any fashionably-dressed person with: “Did you get that from Pakistan?” For the two clothes shops on Tailors’ Street stocked top notch wares; much better in quality and much more reasonable in price than the more plush – and the more Indian – stores in Podduturi Complex.

Nagarajan waved a salute at the traffic constable – what was his name? Naresh? Suresh? Nagesh? – on the Chowrastha, and the pain returned when he lifted his right arm to do so. He started to wince, and caught himself half way. (“It’s not really there, Mr Nagarajan. Just your mind playing tricks.”) With pursed lips he turned into Tailors’ Street, dodging the stream of two-wheelers heading that way from Vijaya Talkies Road. Naresh had just opened the India-Pakistan border, Nagarajan thought with a half-smile, looking over his shoulder and cutting from in front of a lumbering grey Ambassador into the small by-lane that went straight to the big sewer.

The Big Sewer was Hanamkonda’s most prominent landmark bar none. You might live in Hanamkonda and meet people who’d never been to Vijaya Talkies, who might look askance at you if you mentioned Kakatiya University, even who shook their heads when asked directions to the Thousand Pillared Temple, but mention Big Sewer and the reply would come out in a trice. Hanamkonda built itself around the Big Sewer. There was a theory – not a too far-fetched one – that the Chowrastha was where it was because of its proximity to the Big Sewer.

Such an important landmark, and what was its distinguishing feature? Mosquitoes. The Sewer was ‘completely covered’ according to the local municipal officers, but somehow mosquitoes the size of bees freely held court at all times of the day. Particularly at this time, just after sunset, just as the lights of the city were coming on, they would be out in their droves, buzzing for blood. If you lived by the Big Sewer, you didn’t open the windows of your house in the evening unless you wanted to be eaten alive.

More than anything it was that characteristic tangy buzz of mosquitoes in flight that told Nagarajan that he was at the Big Sewer. Almost from memory he turned into the second left, dodging a goat and calling out to the skinny kid in front of him – who from every appearance was contemplating a jump across the road – to stay where he was.

It was somewhere here, wasn’t it, that he had come last year? The air was exactly as it had been that night. The lights in the dwellings (these could not be called houses) were dim and flickering. Lizards prowled around the mercury tubes and snapped at insects. Most windows were closed. The few which were open had been tempered with mosquito meshes.

There was no street-light. He drove on best as he could, aided by just his head light and the occasional light from a house. The smell of fried mutton assaulted his nose from all sides. He gulped. For all his years in the department, he had not yet fallen so low as to eat meat. He had fallen to alcohol, yes, but not to meat. And as long as mutton held that horrible stench, he was in no danger of falling to it either.

A little further on, he realized his head had started to thud. So there were reasons other than his natural social reticence, he thought dryly, that had kept him from visiting Hamid Pasha at his house for a year. He was beginning to see what they were.

Somewhere here. Somewhere.

And just as he parked his vehicle at the front steps of a single bedroom house and looked around, he heard a voice that he recognized – low and hoarse, but tender.

“Begum!” the voice said, “you make the best mutton in the whole wide world, Mashallah.”

And the Begum said, “Haan ji.

A throat cleared itself, and the voice began:

Tamannaon ko zindaa, aarzuon ko javaan kar loon;

 Yeh sharmili nazar keh de to kuch gustaakhiyan kar loon?

 The Begum giggled and said again, “Haan ji.”

Nagarajan got off the bike and stood it. He had reached the place. He stood looking at the front door pensively for a few seconds, then with a quick decisive nod, ran up the stairs, took off his hat, and knocked.


Image Courtesy: AACC.edu

Comments

  1. Sharath, given that I finally managed to grab a copy of Banquet on the dead and am halfway through it, it’s a weird coincidence that you published this post today.

    Am enjoying the book so far, very unlike most other crime thrillers that I have read. Will finish the book and publish a review on my blog sometime soon 🙂

    Like

    • Hi Jai,

      Good to know you’re reading Banquet. I’m slightly ashamed of the book – I think it’s the weakest of all books I’ve written so far – but I will be more than glad to see what you think of it. It’s a relief to know that you’re enjoying it.

      It has good bits to it, I agree, like the scene above, and it is close to my heart from a personal point of view (my father cried reading it in some places, just because of the personal connection), but I do think as a novel, it’s a bit lacking.

      But don’t let my opinion influence you. Tell me what you think as well 🙂

      Like

  2. I read Banquet after Amravati. And I loved Hamid Pasha’s character, the shades of his personality were cold and warm at the same time. I loved both the books! 😀

    Like

  3. Are filler scenes important? The scene above is thoughts and observations about a slum, so in a way it is a filler scene. Though it does bring out Pasha’s and Nagrajan’s character. One lives next to a gutter and eats mutton, the other can’t stand to be close to either. But readers might just skim over it, or worse use it as an excuse to leave the book.
    Out of experience, would you say 50% of any novel is usually filler scenes? Not your books, just generally.

    Like

    • Hi Raj! Interesting question, but also a very subjective one. What constitutes filler and what doesn’t is a personal decision that every reader makes for himself. So while Reader A may skim over the above scene because ‘it doesn’t add anything to the story’, Reader B may read it deeply, taking in the atmosphere of Tailor Street, the Big Sewer and so on. As you yourself mentioned, it also adds character to Pasha and Nagarajan, makes them a bit more real (hopefully).

      My personal yardstick of whether a scene is filler or not is the following:
      1. Does it advance the story?
      2. Does it reveal character?
      3. Does it deepen atmosphere, and does it make the place a bit more real for the reader?

      If the answer to all the above is ‘No’, then it’s a filler and I don’t write it. I’m actually partial in much of my fiction writing to a sense of place, so I’ve sometimes written long scenes that do little else besides deepen the sense of setting. I think that immerses the reader a little bit more into the story.

      Having said all that, though, it’s a personal view. Some may like it, some may not.

      Whether the 50% figure is correct or not also depends on whom you ask. People who prefer short stories find novels terribly ‘padded’, whereas people who enjoy novels – with the detours and subplots and minor characters – find short stories not quite nourishing enough.

      So it depends 🙂

      Like

      • So then this isn’t a filler scene. It deepens the atmosphere, and also highlights something about the character. I’m still to read the book, so I can’t say if it answers the first question in your yardstick.

        In your answer, you’ve brought out something else which is very ticklish for writers. Sub-plot. What is a sub-plot and how does it serve the novel? How does a novelist chose which sub-plot to focus on? How do you find a sub-plot which enriches the story? Every character, every place in the novel has some backstory or a personal struggle. Which one does the novelist choose to look at? The one that merges with the protagonist’s end goal; or the one which makes the story richer by lending it a new dimension, though does little to advance the protagonist in his journey?

        Or is sub-plot something else?

        Like

      • Hi Raj. I think you’re probably overthinking this at this point. I can’t answer for all writers, but I rely on my intuition to decide which sub-plot to explore and which to leave. In the first draft, I write all the sub-plots that sound like good stories to me. And unless it sticks out like a sore thumb in the second reading, it stays. I hardly ever ask all those questions you asked in your comment. Sometimes it’s possible to worry so much that we forget to write 🙂

        In short, there are no right answers. Just write whatever comes, and if it sounds bad when you read it, remove it. No big deal.

        Like

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