In his new crime novel The Third Squad (paperback, digital), writer V Sanjay Kumar introduces us to Karan, an autistic man who’s a member of an elite hit squad. But while this might make you think Kumar’s been reading a lot of comic books and James Bond novels lately, in talking to him about this novel, he reveals that this noir crime novel was actually inspired by real life events.
So, what is The Third Squad about?
In the ’80s and ’90s, six hundred people were killed by police encounter squads in Bombay. Without a judicial process. Staged encounters mind you. And life went on. The cops became stars, the city soon forgot. I was there at the time, working, but also witness to a city changing dramatically. Mumbai was the new name for Bombay. Bombay had art deco, jazz clubs, poetry readings, and genteel people. Mumbai had migrants from parts of the country most people wouldn’t travel to. I wanted to travel back in time, dig into the amnesia. I wanted to create a character who would be ranged against the encounter movement, not a witness but a participant. Blood on his hands and doubts in his head.
And what inspired you to write this novel?
It was pretty much an organic process. I had created three characters who stayed with me for the longest time. Nothing much happened with them. They were policemen. One day, I placed them in Bombay of the ’80s. Suddenly there was a purpose to them. I wrote up the city of that time and I couldn’t stop writing. And then I read about the Batch of 1983, a vintage batch of Mumbai Police that did not age well. One of them appeared in a television interview. Pradeep Sharma. He had shot more than a hundred gangsters. Like others in the same batch, he too broke the law. The idea of a new squad took shape, one that would be effective and would not make the mistakes of ’83.
How fictional and non-fictional is The Third Squad? I mean, you obviously took some liberties, but is this a fictionalized account of a real-life occurrence, or did the real-life occurrence inspire a work of fiction?
The book is grounded in the Bombay of that period. The encounter squads were very real, their encounters made the papers every week. And the timeline again is factual. I had a set of press cuttings around which I set up the narrative. Mumbai Police had two hit squads at the time. There wasn’t a third. The Third Squad, with its particular composition, that is fiction. And all the characters are fictional as well. Basically, there was no single story that set me off, no one person.
Why did you decide to do it this way?
Writing about the city got me thinking. Bombay has a collective consciousness. A few days there and you can sense it. In many ways, it is a great city. But does it have a collective conscience? Does a city need one? Or can circumstances be such that the rules of war can be applied in a city because it is convenient? I wanted to raise these questions. Through Karan, and through his wife Nandini who does heritage walks. She is proud of her city. Her question to Karan is simply, “What the fuck is going on? Do you realize what you are doing, besides following orders?”
You are originally from Chennai, India, but The Third Squad is a noir crime novel, which is a very American genre. Which noir writers, and which of their books, do you consider to be the biggest influences on The Third Squad?
I realized it was a noir novel when my editor said so. I do not read noir, not especially. Growing up in Chennai, a bunch of us in a city college visited a library that was stocked floor to ceiling with Westerns written by the likes of Zane Grey [Riders Of The Purple Sage], Louis L’amour [The Lonesome Gods], and J.T. Edson [The Ysabel Kid]. More than them I was influenced by James Hadley Chase. I read everything he wrote. At the time, I loved his unsentimental treatment, the in-your-face writing, and laconic humor. More recently I am probably influenced by cinema. Polanski’s Chinatown. The pacing of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America. Blood Simple by The Coen Brothers. In India, we have Dibakar Bannerjee and Anurag Kashyap making the kind of films I like.
Do you think there’s anything distinctly Indian about your writing?
I have no clue. In my art business, in the art world, we have a saying that goes; in creative pursuit, the nation is not a boundary. I believe that. I also believe that there isn’t one India that one can bring out and place on a pedestal. The country pulls in many different directions, its plurality is quite amazing. There are many states, languages, sensibilities, cuisines, and cultures. And perhaps each city in India has its own noir.
One interesting aspect of The Third Squad is that the people in the hit squad are autistic. In figuring out how autistic assassins would behave, did you research autism or did you know someone who is autistic and talk to them about it?
I had to get into the head of one such person. There is severe autism and there are the neuro-typicals, us, the big WE, the majority that decides, discriminates, includes, and excludes. In between is a wide spectrum. People with Asperger’s are close to us typicals, on the cusp so to speak. Differences are real but not startling. Aspies have close to normal life spans and live independently. They happen to have specific traits that are to do with communication, social interaction, empathy, and how they prefer black and white to the color most typicals reside in; which is grey. I researched Asperger’s using online resources. There is a lot of material. Research papers, videos, and importantly personal posts. Aspies really come alive online. Thanks to online videos there was no need to spend time meeting people. It took me a long while but I was eventually comfortable with the character Karan.
Why did you decide to do your research online, and what did it add to the book?
So the key issue with the city Mumbai was the lack of a collective conscience. And a key characteristic of Aspies is diminished empathy. So here is the crux. What if an Aspie struggled with this issue of extra-judicial killings? What if he made a brave call? He is abetted in no small measure by his wife Nandini, but in moments of life and death it is still Karan who begins to doubt what he is doing. The book stares down this question: Is it possible that an Aspie tells the city of Mumbai what it is to be human?
Noir crime novels seem tailor made for the movies. Has there been any talk of turning Third Squad into a movie? Or even a TV show or video game?
My agent has received interest from a production house to develop The Third Squad as an international TV series in English, and I am enthused by the possibilities. We are currently in negotiations. Nothing has been signed as yet, but I am hopeful it will be very soon.
I hadn’t thought of a game. It is an interesting idea…. A vigilante cop or a rogue member of an Asperger’s hit squad, and the job at hand is to clean up the streets of Mumbai. Potentially very exciting.
If the producers of the TV show asked you, who would you suggest they cast in the main roles and why?
The story, set in Mumbai, India, lends itself to casting South Asian actors who have had experience in Hollywood, Bollywood, and American and British television. There are so many exciting actors, it’s tough to list them all. As a wish list: Dev Patel [Lion], Irrfan Khan [Jurassic World], and Priyanka Chopra[Quantico]. They bring tremendous versatility to their roles. I believe they also understand Mumbai, its uniqueness, its complexities, having visited and lived there. Trust me, there are other actors as well who given a chance would do brilliantly. And if we end up adding new characters, that would open it up to non-South Asian actors, which is exciting.
Finally, if someone really enjoys The Third Squad, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why?
I would ask them to begin with my first novel Artist, Undone. The book delves into an artist’s village in Chennai and the art world in Mumbai, with a detour into Richard Prince and Tracey Emin. In a nutshell it begins with, “What art can do to you,” and “The sneaky feeling that you are being had.” And the book ends pretty much on the same note.
I am also working on other narratives. I want to draw people into my India; urban, middle-class, very alive, very addictive, full of characters on the margins wanting their story to be told.