An Urban Noir in Mumbai: The Third Squad by V Sanjay Kumar


The Third Squad by V Sanjay Kumar is not the kind of book that I would pick up in a bookstore because I tend to steer clear of thrillers and crime fiction. However, its blurb caught my interest.

Karan is an expert sharpshooter who never misses his mark. He belongs to a police hit squad formed to only commit encounter killings. All members of his squad fall somewhere along the autism spectrum.

I had to know how the book handles disability within the thriller and crime genre, and I am happy to report that Kumar's book does not disappoint.

Told alternatively in first and third person, The Third Squad tells the story of Karan, Mumbai police encounter squad's best sharpshooter, the one who never misses the mark and is a subject of curiosity among his peers.

Karan inhabits a world of criminals taking dialysis in makeshift clinics, informers in disguise, erratic policemen who twist the law, warlords, and staged encounters whose media reports are "the cut-and-paste literature of the underworld". It is this world that the reader must enter.

Urban Noir in the City of Mumbai

Set in the city of Mumbai (Maharashtra, India), Kumar's work may be best categorised as an 'Urban Noir': a work of fiction that lays bare the underbelly of big cities, spaces that are vulnerable to crime.

Back at home it hit Karan with surprising clarity as to how cinematic this city truly was—it was also the uncut version of a civic nightmare.

Kumar employs this very cinematic and civic nightmarish character of Mumbai to tell the tale. Karan's Mumbai is a dish best served cold, plastered slightly with nostalgia and seasoned significantly with disgust and contempt.

Half the time the city spat and half the time its pants were around its ankles. . . The chawl [a type of community housing complex, also a culture] resembled a pigsty in the morning.

I must warn you, the whole book is a disgruntled homage to Mumbai and cities like Mumbai, with their pockets of neglect, segregation of spaces, corruptions, and frustrations, best epitomised by Karan's wife, Nandini's city walks.

It is a sultry dawn in the city, she thinks. . . In the night the city yields to the will of those who hold remorse for ransom. The city of noir sleeps at dawn. The night's debris waits for the tide.

The 'Slightly Mental' Cop

Where Kumar's book becomes much more than just-another-crime-novel is not only in its lyrical descriptions of the city, but also in the way it explores the topic of disability. Evam Bhaskar, a 'doctor' who runs an obscure outfit in the city and takes care of children with disabilities, tells the reader,

[N]ature's biggest mistake and evolution's all-time screw-up is making the majority of us very much like one other. . . We live in a uniform think tank, we swim rhythmically in an empathy pool, and we have lost the ability to deal with those of us who are different. And when someone different comes along we cannot handle it.

About autism specifically, Evam says,

When a normal child is born your windows open out. You breathe fresh air, hear new sounds, and you see a brave new world. When an autistic child is born you go knocking on doors.

The reason why his peers find the 'slightly mental' Karan to be such a mystery is because he has mild Asperger's syndrome (this is not a spoiler, it's in the blurb). They are, of course, unaware of it.

Karan's story is linked with that of Evam and of Ranvir Pratap, the founder of the third squad. In the digital age, where the era of encounter squads is coming to a close, Pratap somehow manages to uphold the myth and legacy around the Special Branch. It all boils down to one 'mistake'.

His [Karan's] boss [Pratap] was a guilty man; at least he behaved like one. He was forever trying to justify the encounter approach to himself. He began quoting extensively from the Bhagwad Geetha, a text in which killing brothers in a war was arguably acceptable and philosophically tenable. 

Some Clumsy Clichés 

I have only one complaint to make about the book: the use of clumsy clichés in describing Karan and Nandini's relationship. How Nandini walked into Karan's peripheral vision "wearing a floral dress that swirled in the breeze"; how the girls were "wary but intrigued" by Karan's "brooding eyes and loner disposition" where secrets could be found; how Karan "landed the girl who all the boys chased".

Such descriptions are more suited to a young-adult romance novel than an otherwise well-written and character-driven Urban Noir.

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The Third Squad by V Sanjay Kumar, published by Juggernaut Books, 2017.

* This book was sent to me for review by the author. The views expressed, however, are entirely my own. 
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