Kolkata Noir

“Moments across Time”

Review by Joey Madia

“Buy me a drink, Becker, and I will tell you a story.” (Part Three)

Spanning four decades in three parts, Tom Vater’s Kolkata Noir is a good old-fashioned detective story with the addition of a love affair never enacted and abundant socioeconomic and political commentary.

Part One takes place in 1999 in Calcutta, India. Although thoughts of a hellish place and the Broadway revue Oh! Calcutta! immediately come to mind, the author tells us in the Acknowledgments that “[d]uring the Raj [the period of British rule from 1858 until the independence of India in 1947], Calcutta was the world’s second most economically powerful metropolis.”

The story opens with the hunt for suspects in the brutal back-alley murder of Abir Roychowdhury, a powerful and wealthy man whose wife, Paulami, a socialite and well known in her own right, is unfaithful with two men, one of whom—an Englishman—is the principle suspect.

Leading the investigation is Inspectress Madhurima Mitra, whose great uncle was a celebrated detective 50 years earlier. She’s under pressure on multiple fronts: she’s a woman, she has a lineage nearly impossible to live up to, and both the local authorities and the British want the murder wrapped up as neatly and as quickly as possible.

Mitra seeks out a grizzled, jaded photographer named Becker, who is acquainted with the chief suspect, Richard Dunlop, who has gone missing. No mystery to the reader here—he is one of the men having an affair with Paulami. The other man is Abir’s brother, Kishore.

Sticky, sticky stuff, with lots of motive and considerable money and power as the stakes. As is wont to happen, after the murder is accomplished, the conspirators begin to fight and threaten each other, resulting in plenty of intrigue, double-crossing, and plot twisting.

Becker and Mitra also find themselves attracted to one another, although she is married with a daughter and, even if she wasn’t, he is not the settling down type.

Part Two picks up 20 years later, in 2019. Calcutta is now Kolkata—a case of old wine in new skin.

The core story is about two spoiled British brothers working a con on the banks of the Ganges. Aubrey is a crack-smoking showman going by the name Firangi Baba, “the foreign sadhu.” Upon arrival in Kolkata, Aubrey realized “[h]e could grow dreadlocks, don saffron cloth, not shave for a month, put a monkey on a chain, and become a saint.” His brother Magnus provides the entrepreneurial aspects—dealing drugs and operating a long con that involves running “a vlog, a YouTube channel, and a Twitter account.” In this spirit meets technology stageshow, cell phones are ubiquitous for “communing with the gods.”

In Sgt. Pepper terms, Magnus is Dougie Shears, working the angles, while his brother is the talent.

It’s here that we’re re-introduced to Becker the photographer, whose connections in Kolkata are strong enough that he’s hired by the boys’ father, a lawyer for “one of the city’s oldest firms” (read Agent of Empire) to find and bring them home. If Becker fails, the father plans to bring in some well-armed muscle to take care of the problem, bullets and all.

This section of the book also serves as a mini exposé on the rumored nefarious practices of Mother Teresa… perhaps, in the end, no different from Aubrey at all.

The brothers’ scam, as one might guess, attracts the attention of everyone from the local police to a pair of corrupt filmmakers to the Kolkata mob, run by the suitably nicknamed Dead King. As the brothers get deeper in the weeds, including a run-in with a dwarf, the action culminates with a noose and a graveyard scene reminiscent of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

During the run-up of tension, Becker meets Madhurima’s daughter, Devi. By the time he and Madhurima finally cross paths, the moment is bittersweet and all too brief. By this point, it’s clear that they are destined to know one another only in deep flashes before being forced again into parting.

Kolkata Noir now jumps to the “Killkata” of 2039, a time when global catastrophes include among their number the flooding of Kolkata, which has initially happened a year earlier. Hotels only operate their upper floors and you need a boat to get to them. It is a time when only “connected” people can move about at all, especially when it comes to entering and exiting India.

By this time, Devi’s father has lost his job as a police officer due to anti-Muslim laws, so Devi asks Becker to help get her mother out of India, where it is now impossible to get plane tickets. Becker, heart strings a-tug, calls in some IOUs and heads out for the rescue.

Despite abundant technology, like Tesla self-piloting planes, climate change has still done its work on the world. Given the recent switch from “climate change” to “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” rhetoric in the 24-hour news cycle and among progressive politicians after the string of hurricanes, deaths in NYC from flooding, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and perpetual forest fires and records set for temperatures in once unlikely places like Vancouver, this brings the narrative home.

Tech has also caused human damage. A chemical spill has led to mass deformities, at times with several within families, including hermaphrodites. Parents have as many deformed children as possible as a source of income and they and others sell the healthy organs of children on the black market. This is a grim vision of our possible/probable future that makes rising sea levels seem a minor concern.

There’s an untitled epilogue taking place in 2054.

Besides the central location and two main characters, Vader unites the three stories through a different pair of villains operating at the core of each of the parts. There are also overarching thematic issues, including British Colonialism—driven by the East India Company (who arrived in 1690) and the opium trade. The trope of the good, honest cop trying to do their job while their bosses run interference for the rich and influential is another.

Each of the three parts is an homage to a film or story. That information is in the Acknowledgments. I don’t want to put a lens on your reading by revealing them here. The films et al. mentioned in this review are solely my comparisons.

Vader wrote this story as a writer-in-residence for the annual Indo-European Art Residency Kolkata by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan. The details that give life to the stories because of his immersion in the culture and geography make a great case for the value of these programs. As a final note, Vader reports that he read aloud a Kolkata-based short story as part of the residency while being tattooed with the word Noir.

TITLE: Kolkata Noir
AUTHOR: Tom Vater
PUBLISHER: Next Chapter, 2021
ISBN: 9781006495731