Of traffic and trafficking

Anita Nair's Chain of Custody
A pen purchased from a child street vendor lies on top of Anita Nair’s Chain of Custody

The cars on MG Road were traffucked, as usual. In the time it was taking for us to make the right turn, I could have walked to Bookworm. Despite my exasperated sighs and silent prayers of “God, please let the light change. I need to pee,” the light remained stubbornly red.

That’s when she saw me. Or was it a he? I honestly couldn’t tell. Short hair and a ragged t-shirt gave the child an androgynous look. This child of eight or maybe nine approached the car and rapped two long plastic pens against the window.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

I turned to the taxi driver. “How much should I pay for the pens?”

“Five rupees,” he said. 

I removed 10 rupees from my purse as the driver rolled down my window.

As I handed the child the money and took the pens, she protested. Her gender became clear as she squealed slightly. She wanted 20 for two pens. I had only 10 to give, so I returned one. The driver shooed the girl away and rolled up my window.

The light turned green and off we went.

I don’t know what made me buy the pens that day. I normally don’t. Maybe it was the girl’s matted hair and pleading brown eyes that melted me. Maybe it was guilt, that dark emotion driven by too much privilege. Maybe I just wanted a pen.

I don’t talk much about this India. This India that’s so often seen but rarely touched. That’s often kept at a distance while staring me straight in the face. This India is one foreigners struggle to understand. Many foreigners who live here simply can’t take it. Seeing the poverty every damn day. Those who survive it often become numb to it. It becomes just another facet of life alongside street vendors selling fruits and temple priests blessing new motorcycles as their drivers wait in traffic.

Chain of Custody

This India, the India of child laborers, is the India of Anita Nair’s Chain of Custody. This book isn’t set in Kolkata’s brothels or Kamathipura, Mumbai’s notorious red light district. Instead, Chain of Custody shows us Bangalore’s darker side. A Bangalore beyond the shining IT offices and upscale restaurants. A Bangalore that is closer to me than I like to admit. For many well-known Bangalore locations are mentioned including the MTR outlet where I first ate when I visited last year. 

Chain of Custody at MTR
Anita Nair’s Chain of Custody pictured with a plate of masala dosa, mint chutney, sambhar, and ghee at MTR Bangalore

There’s also mention of Kothanur, where Anita’s Attic is located.

This India is populated by pimps who sell a woman’s vagina as a commodity and contractors or “thekedars” who sell children into work houses or sexual slavery. This is the world of Gowda, Anita Nair’s flawed yet lovable inspector.

The good

Chain of Custody is the second novel featuring Borei Gowda. He’s quick becoming India’s version of Rankin’s Rebus. A bit set in his ways, and deeply flawed, Gowda swears, has a mistress, and doesn’t seem to quite fit into Bangalore’s rising middle class, although he has learned how to eat pasta properly. Mostly. 

The prose is tight and well written with an almost breezy quality. Yet, the content is so dark, you might find yourself putting it aside at times as Nair uses small turns of phrase to tear your soul to pieces with lines like this:

Somewhere on that border crossing, I left a piece of myself—flesh and blood…

Yet, you still feel compelled to continue.

Most books with such a dark theme have a dark tone and often ponderously pretentious writing to reflect the topic. The assumption seems to be that trafficking is a serious business, so the writing must be, too. But, Nair doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead, she shows us the lightness that penetrates the darkness. The scene with the Pepsi can exemplifies this approach. Yes, the child in that scene has been trafficked, but he’s still just a kid with a touch of innocence. At least that seems to be Nair’s hope—and ours.

I have often called myself a commercial literary fiction writer because I feel torn between these two worlds. With Chain of Custody, I see these worlds collide then synthesize to create a fiction that is at once a typical crime novel and also a deep study of human psychology.

Nair uses perspective well. Most of the book is in the third-person limited style typical of noir novels. But, then she takes us into the mind of Krishna with first person. That shift doesn’t jar the reader as it often can. It allows Nair to bring depth to the study of why and how someone comes to traffic children. It’s a sympathetic portrayal without judgement. The takeaway from his character is that even the most evil acts are committed by human beings. Their motives are complex, and if we seek to stop these people, we must understand their drives and not lose sight of their humanity. For it’s ultimately Krishna’s hubris and delusions of religious grandeur that are his undoing.

For those outside India who worry they won’t understand this Indian novel, fear not. Nair’s setting, as an Italian review noted, lets the foreign reader move beyond the tourist highlights into the real India. When Hindi or Kannada phrases are used, the context is clear and a translation appears shortly thereafter.

The bad

Honestly, there’s little “bad” to discuss in this book. Chain of Custody is one of the best crime novels I’ve read in some time and has reignited my love for that genre. But every book has weakness, so I will present two points.

Although I liked the new character of Ratna, I didn’t care for the Santosh-Ratna story arc. The hints at a possible sexual attraction felt forced. Ultimately, that arc remains unresolved, with potential to explore it in future books. Personally, I would rather not see them together. A healthy flirtation would be nice, but anything more seems cliché to me. I await the hate mail from other readers who will disagree with me.

I’m also not sure I believe that Gowda didn’t recognize the drug in his son’s possession. Perhaps it’s a statement on how out of touch he is, but he is still a cop. Wouldn’t a cop know? And knowing it was probably a drug, why on Earth did he taste it? The results were fantastic, but it felt like a convenient plot device to allow us to see Gowda’s softer, sillier side.

The verdict

Chain of Custody blends the best elements of commercial and literary fiction to deliver a nuanced study of human trafficking & its players.

4 Responses

  1. Now I am itching to pick up this book and read. Being a Bangalorean since more than a decade, there would be a lot in this book that I would relate to. Another fantastic review, Jean.

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