Swarup reins back humour, hyperbole, insult, and relies instead on that most Indian of weapons—shrewdness. He reads his characters as a chess player reads an adversary and this makes him an excellent ventriloquist; all six suspects have believable voices.
Difficile est saturam non scribere—it’s hard not to write a satire—Juvenal’s prefatory sentence justifies Six Suspects, a roman a clef based on the murder of model and socialite Jessica Lall. The facts are common knowledge. The murderer’s acquittal sets off paroxysms of ire among the capital’s Beautiful People and a retrial resulted in conviction.
What if there had been no public backlash? This premise starts the book. "Not all deaths are equal. There’s a caste system even in murder. The stabbing of an impoverished rickshaw-puller is no more than a statistic, buried in the inside pages of the newspaper. But the murder of a celebrity instantly becomes prime time news." The novel follows real events up to the shooter’s acquittal. From then on, Swarup invents a series of events leading to the murder of Vicky Rai, the man who murdered model Ruby Gill.
Vicky Rai is shot at the party celebrating his acquittal. There are six suspects. Shabnam Saxena, Bollywood enchantress, described as the ultimate wet dream. Munna Mobile, the cellular thief from Mehrauli. Eketi, the Andaman islander on a mission to recover the stolen sacred rock, the ingetayi of his tribe. Home minister Jagannath Rai, who has all of Uttar Pradesh trapped in his corrupt coils. Larry Page, the forklift operator from Waco, Texas, in search of his mail-order bride. And Mohan Kumar, retired bureaucrat, periodically possessed by the spirit of Gandhi.
There are no surprises. Everything abides with the script and the characters are stereotypes that never rise above the moment. Vicky richly deserved to be murdered and the six lives we’re led through explain the justice of his killing.
This is a morality play. Its strength lies in the narratives of the suspects. Swarup gets into the skin of his characters quickly and without fuss. With the first few sentences of each narrative, the reader experiences the character. That’s no mean skill in a novelist. He can also zoom into the core emotion with an intelligence that has nothing at all to do with analysis. Munna, helpless and terrified, watching his beloved adopted sister Champi struggling with her rapist, goes through the gamut of terror, sorrow, denial, uncertainty before he gets resolve enough to lash out—and the writer’s not ashamed of Munna’s ambivalence.
The travails of Larry Page are picaresque enough to stand alone. The slow, kind American, his development arrested somewhere between deprived childhood and grudging puberty, discovers his mail-order bride Sapna Singh is a swindle as soon as he lands in Delhi—she’s really Shabnam Saxena the actress. No matter. Mr Gupta of Shylock Detective Agency will track her down. Meanwhile, Larry must wait at a cruddy hotel in Paharganj. "In just three days, Delhi had broken my heart, blown my mind and blasted my intestines." Page’s adventures are yet to begin. Swarup is deft in limning Larry’s education from credulity through forbearance to energetic seize-the-day opportunism.
Equally canny is the pathos of Eketi who plays out Larry Page’s story in reverse. Eketi narrowly misses being killed in a bomb blast at Magh Mela. "Allahabad Railway Station bore no sign of the carnage happening in another part of town. Trains came and went. Passengers embarked and disembarked. Porters hustled and bustled. It was business as usual." Banal? Yes, but it captures Eketi’s desolation.
I worry that this novel will be read as a thriller. It is a grim carousel of games sacred and profane, a neat leela that capsules our times.