A Rashomon-like social commentary on conservatism and misogyny

Equal parts whodunnit and social drama, Atharva Pandit’s Hurda marks the arrival of a sincere, diligent new voice in Indian English literature.

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

The novel brings out the condition of women in rural India in a hard-hitting way.

The novel brings out the condition of women in rural India in a hard-hitting way. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

A decade ago, when I watched Anurag Kashyap’s 2013 film, Ugly (a film that sold itself as a kidnapping drama featuring a young girl), I was struck by its experimental nature—a story in constant conversation with the viewer’s expectations of what a kidnapping mystery should look like. At the end of the movie, we realise that its whodunnit part is the least important bit. The real ugliness Kashyap wants to portray is in the hearts and minds of the adults who are supposed to look out for the child. A similar narrative misdirection is at the heart of Atharva Pandit’s debut novel, Hurda, published recently by Bloomsbury India.

The sisters Anisha, Sanchita, and Priyanka disappear from their school one day, sending shock waves through the largely conservative Marathi village (“Murwani, Maharashtra”) they live in. A lot of scrutiny and blame is placed on the shoulders of the girls’ mother and their grandfather. The raped and murdered bodies of the girls are found later, floating in a well. After six years, a young journalist, Chitranshu, arrives in Murwani to piece together what actually happened and why the villagers reacted the way they did.

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The novel is inspired by a real-life crime in a Marathi-speaking village, first reported in 2013. Pandit read about the incident in a two-page weekend feature in The Indian Express, written by Smita Nair. “I was a teenager back then,” Pandit said. “It was a big learning experience for me, the depravity of the crime, the way people blamed the victims. It made me question where we are as a society, if this is our collective attitude. After a while, the unsolved case faded out of public memory, in the way stories often do as part of their ‘life cycle’. I kept track of small developments that would happen every now and then and spent some time in the village where it took place. Not necessarily to interview people or to gain new leads but just to get a sense of the place.”

Influenced by Bolaño

Hurda is structured as a series of interviews and reports, with multiple narratorial voices: the girls’ mother, the grandfather, the chief investigating officers, passers-by, and so on. And it is not that Pandit wants to create a Rashomon-like, unreliable narrator effect here. The idea is more to let multiple voices have their say so that readers get as much information as possible about Murwani’s men and women, their attitudes, their likes and dislikes, and their assorted bigotries (caste, gender, and so on). It is a structure informed by the works of Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean writer who often used this technique.

Featuring multiple narratorial perspectives, Atharva Pandit’s debut novel is simultaneously humourous and disturbing.

Featuring multiple narratorial perspectives, Atharva Pandit’s debut novel is simultaneously humourous and disturbing. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

“During the first few drafts, I tried a conventional third-person narrative, but it just wasn’t working for this story,” Pandit said. “I had always been fascinated by books where two people are talking about the same incident, like Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, or where there are multiple points of view about a single event, like Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. So, I decided to add some more characters to my story and let these new voices divide the narration among themselves.”

For example, here is a passage where the grieving mother is recalling an encounter with the local policeman, shortly after her daughters went missing; the apathy and the misogyny are brought out in a much clearer and hard-hitting way than a third-person narrative saying the same thing could have achieved.

“…. If a mother can’t keep tabs on where her daughters are, where they are playing, what can a policeman do? The madarchod said that policemen are helpless when it comes to such daughters and such parents. I asked what he meant by such daughters. He scratched his useless head and said: You know, daughters who have mobile phones, daughters with shiny new clothes and lots of money. I don’t know where that money comes from, he said, but you know your daughters are famous because of that. Because of the money.”

Cover of Hurda.

Cover of Hurda. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Hurda has heavily Marathi-inflected English; it contains a higher frequency of Marathi words than even contemporary gangster movies set in Mumbai do. (The very title, Hurda, is a Marathi word for tender cobs of jowar roasted over open fires, a popular winter snack in the region. One of the eyewitnesses claims that she heard the sisters saying “something about hurda” as they fled their school.) It is a bold choice, especially for a debut writer, and I admired the results. One can easily surmise the meaning of the Marathi words from the context. And the dialogue is entirely in line with the characters featured: the pottymouth of a crusty old police veteran sounds very different from the hesitant Marathi inflexions of, say, a teenaged girl or a young, unhappy housewife. “I must credit my editor R. Sivapriya with the decision not to tone down the Marathi,” Pandit said. “At no stage was there a discussion about including a glossary or something like that at the end of the book. She completely backed the voice and the register of this novel. I knew that it might come across as jarring for some readers and there might be criticism, but for me, nothing else was working. I had to bring out the way people in this Maharashtra village talk.”

Contours of desire

Pandit also has an enviable grasp on the contours of desire, and how one’s romantic and/or sexual choices can be just as reflective of caste and class as our accents, food, clothes, et al. In a superb passage, we see the down-on-luck cop Dighole reframing his prurient affair with a local unhappy housewife (Kavita Aangle). Inside his head, he is convinced that he is in love, but as his consequent thoughts reveal, the fact that Kavita is a rich man’s trophy wife makes her all the more attractive. Sleeping with her is especially valuable to him because in his eyes it is “stealing from the rich”; it is practically class warfare.

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“But his lust for Kavita, he had started to believe, was actually borne out of love. He loved her, that’s how it was. He loved her because she let him do whatever he wanted with her, and he loved her because her skin had that sweet aroma of rich people. Washed, scented, cared for, Kavita was a catch. Dighole had always believed that. That bastard of her husband, what the fuck did he know about his wife?”

Equal parts whodunnit and social drama, Hurda marks the arrival of a very sincere, diligent new voice in Indian English literature. It is not often that novels are humorous and disturbing at the same time, but Pandit has pulled off this feat effortlessly right in his first novel.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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