Nilanjana Roy Paints A Brutal, Realistic Picture Of Migrant India In Black River

The tagline on the US hardcover edition of Nilanjana Roy's Black River reads "It takes a village to kill a child" - this is a hard to read police procedural shedding light on brutal realities.

Trigger Warning: This deals with gender based violence and child sexual abuse and may be triggering for survivors.

Black River begins with young Munia enjoying a cassata ice cream which her father has brought from the nearest town to celebrate her eighth birthday. She savours the unusual flavours, then offers a spoonful to her father. The tender relationship between the young girl and her father, Chand, is quite at odds with what one would perceive will be the case in a village in patriarchal Haryana, and this sets the tone for what is to come.

The next day, Munia wanders in the fields near her home while her father is at work. When he returns home, he finds her lifeless body swinging from the stout branches of tree. Suspicion immediately falls on the dim-witted Muslim man with the bandaged hands who was wandering around near the scene of the crime, and the village wants to extract vengeance. The police, however, request that they be given one week to find the criminal.

As always happens in our country after every horrific crime, there is the tug of war between people wanting vengeance and those wanting justice. Nilanjana Roy brings this out beautifully in the conversation between SSP Pilania who has been sent from the city to solve the gruesome murder and Jolly, the richest man in the village-

Jolly says, ‘..Whatever help you need, I will give it. Anything your men require to solve this case, to give this grieving man here the chance of revenge on the scum who killed his daughter, ask me. I am here to help.’

The SSP says quietly, ‘Justice. What we promise is justice.’

Jolly says, ‘Yes, yes. I agree. But what does Chand want?”

Chand appears not to have heard the question. …’I want him dead. The man who took Munia from me, he should die.’

Never miss real stories from India's women.

Register Now

Jolly ..says to Chand. ‘..I promise you, Chand, this murder will be solved. You will have your vengeance.’

Ombir notes that, this time, Pilania does not correct him or speak of justice.

Through this brief exchange, the lack of trust that people have in the police system is vividly brought out with an economy of words. Towards the end of the story, the grieving father is allowed vengeance, but does it extract it?

More than just a police procedural

Black River is framed as a police procedural, but it is so much more than just that.

Black River

The story moves back and forth in time, following Munia’s father as he navigates Delhi as a migrant worker. We see how he strikes up a friendship with the Bengali migrant, Khaled, and how he sets up home on the banks of the Yamuna with him and his wife, Rabia. We see how he starts working for Badshah Mian who runs a meat shop and teaches him to cut and sell meat. These friendships sustain him more than his wife and family back home in the village. Through his eyes (and the eyes of Rabia), we see the lives of migrants in Delhi. Of how the city needs them, yet doesn’t want to make space for them. We learn of how migrants invest their life savings in buying small properties in slum communities, but do not get proper papers to prove their ownership.

Through the lives of Badshah Khan and Rabia, we see the growing communal tension and of how even the most pragmatic and optimistic start to doubt their safety. This conversation between Badshah Mian and Rabia says more than descriptions of actual communal tension can-

“He said to me, you can see the signs. But she is stubborn, she will refuse to leave.”

“Leave where? Delhi? For what?”

“The country, Rabia. You can’t have missed what’s happening around us. Even in your own colony, the trouble at Arshad’s wedding two years ago …”

“But it’s always been this way!” she cries.

“Some pushing and pulling, yes, some clashes between us and them, yes. We are used to a hundred little fires breaking out here and there, smouldering. Then people calm down and the fires go out, leaving only the memory of ashes behind. But this is different. When someone blows on each fire and sends the flames rising higher, when they bring fresh coals every time, when a hundred fires join together and become a thousand-I see it happening. We are in our middle years, Rabia, I am at the lip of old age. Too old to stay and spend the rest of my life fighting for a space to breathe.”

Black River paints a realistic picture of migrant India

Each of the characters in the book is at the same time typical, and yet unique. We find it easy to slot people into fixed categories, but it is, for instance, hard to do so with Chand. As he says-

He has been more than a simple farmer. He has seen the world, been out in the world. Been a truck mechanic, a construction worker, a road builder, a part-time driver, a butcher. His daughter was born in a big city. She had been given life first by one woman, then another. Their lives could not be folded down so neatly, he wanted to tell the television people, not into these bloodless sentences, all the marrow sucked out of their experiences.

Black River paints a realistic picture of India. It is not a beautiful picture, because there is much going on today that we cannot be proud of. But though the picture is not a pretty one, Nilanjana Roy paints the picture with empathy and detail. I may not recommend the book to a fan of crime fiction, but I will unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a realistic account of India.

Beginnings are the sweetest. Rabia distrusts the films and TV serials that end on a blaring note of happiness. Life has a way of dealing with happy endings, adding a few snakes turning up unexpected nests of scorpions.

Want a copy of this book?

If you’d like to pick up Black River written by Nilanjana Roy, use our affiliate links at Amazon Indiaand at Amazon US.

Women’s Web gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!

Image source Facebook and book cover Amazon.

Liked this post?

Join the 100000 women at Women's Web who get our weekly mailer and never miss out on our events, contests & best reads - you can also start sharing your own ideas and experiences with thousands of other women here!


About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

82 Posts | 87,415 Views

Stay updated with our Weekly Newsletter or Daily Summary - or both!

All Categories