You might be forgiven to mistaking it all for a game, the trading of favours between cops and the media. But the problem is that it is very much a reality in today’s India, especially in Delhi, a city overrun by migrants from other states, offering quick anonymity to the criminal and a rat’s warren of hiding places. Batabyal, an ex-media person who now teaches film studies at SOAS, used his own experiences to spin the story of Abhishek Dutta, a rookie who broke into crime reporting with all the odds stacked against him.
Through sheer accident, Dutta finds himself getting front page headline after front page headline and for him it becomes a balancing act between the jealousy of his colleagues and calling in favours from the police to ensure that he keeps that first page by-line and so rises out of his intern status. All this set against a background of master criminals out to kidnap the corrupt and powerful.
There are characters like Uday Singh, the chief cop, who comes from Bihar and is known as Dirty Harry because he lay down on his back and fired blindly into a crowd, the gun over his head. Or the shooter who actually runs the team on which he is sent, though that is not officially acknowledged by his seniors. Many of the issues tackled are the ones that plague governance, like the rapes and harassment of women, which are tossed back and forth.
Batabyal takes the reader on a round of police patrols, of which he obviously has experience and his rookie Abhishek has the knack of picking up a story every time, though every time he has to pay a price to keep the police happy so that the stories will keep on coming. But then The Price You Pay – a title that strikes me more as Jeffrey Archer than Sidney Sheldon – is about what you have to do to get to the top and stay there. Those who have read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games may find that book more violently gripping in its encounters. Batabyal on the whole is mild, concentrating on the nuances of power and how it is possible, given the hold the media has on everyone, for a kidnapping to be staged on television – shades perhaps of Stanley Lumet’s Network.
The clash between print and television media and the viciousness of television anchors – here Batabyal has several digs at the Bengalis who make it to the top – is vivid and again obviously comes from experience. Delhiites will recognise the use of the Delhi lingua franca and many of the alleys that constitute the Delhi underbelly, including places where one can get great food at 3 am in the morning.
Since he is so familiar with his terrain, Batabyal maintains a steady pace and delivers an unpretentious read that will make a good travel companion. One could have asked for more build up to the climax which gets a trifle unbelievable, however, if made into a film, which seems inevitable, is bound to be a stopper.
The Price You Pay by Somnath Batabyal
Published by HarperCollins in India, 2013
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