Crack open a book and you’ll find that cities are chameleons. In romance novels, they’re sparkling, sunny playgrounds. You can bump into an attractive stranger around the corner and ride off into the sunset on the evening Metro. In business guides, they’re hotbeds of opportunity – even a pothole can become a stepping-stone to greatness. Memoirs draw new maps of old neighbourhoods. Travel guides turn those neighbourhoods into navigable streetscapes, punctuated by cafés with free wi-fi.
In tales of true crime, everything’s a little different. The streets are meaner, corners darker. Skylines come pre-cloaked in a sense of foreboding. And you can never quite trust the smiling stranger.
Indian non-fiction crime books in the past few years have gone beyond the usual here’s-how-it-happened formula. Authors, watching the true-crime genre explode globally in film, TV, podcasts and long-form journalism, are taking notes. They’re scripting cinematic scenes and adding bits of local detail – life in 1970s Bengaluru, Kolkata slang, the layout of a Jogeshwari slum in Mumbai – to orient readers. Meanwhile, retired police officers and law-enforcement experts are now writing memoirs. Their descriptions of opium busts in the hinterland, terrorist hideouts in Delhi and caste hierarchies in Jodhpur are as much a showcase of investigations as they are of life in these parts.
Some of India’s earliest true-crime writings are from late-1800s Bengal, where Bakaullah and Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, darogas or detective policemen, recounted their investigations in journals and magazines. But it’s not until the early 2000s that actual cases were published in paperback.
Crime reporters J Dey and Hussain Zaidi swapped grisly headlines for an in-depth look at urban crime, in books such as Zero Dial: The Dangerous World of Informers and Black Friday (about the lead up to the 1993 Mumbai blasts) respectively.
In the years since, Zaidi’s non-fiction has covered Mumbai’s first police encounter in Wadala, gang wars in central Mumbai and gun battles in Lokhandwala. He now has a crime and espionage imprint with Penguin Random House called Blue Salt. And Golden Pen, the content house he co-founded, just partnered with Westland to publish more crime books.
“True-crime writing is easier now with WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter,” says the one-time crime reporter who had to use a payphone to speak to the mobster Dawood Ibrahim in the 1990s. “What’s nearly impossible now is landing an exclusive story. Now, in minutes, everything’s up online.”
Books, then, are better suited to the long view. Arita Sarkar, whose 2019 book, Kidnapped looks at 10 cases of child abduction, says readers are drawn to true-crime books because they offer a completeness to stories that news reports often can’t offer.
Sarkar travelled across the country – Kolkata, Coimbatore, Noida – to present real-life accounts of kidnappings. Her stories reflect the human side of the statistics. “It’s not just trafficking gangs that abduct minors, but people known to the family who are seeking ransom or revenge,” she says. “North India has more cases than the South. Cities, because they’re wealthier, have more kidnappings. And more boys are victims, possibly because they have a higher social value, or because an adult with a distressed minor boy attracts less public attention.”
Regardless of the kind of crime, Zaidi says location plays a huge role in the aftermath. “Not only are crimes in villages largely more gruesome, their police are often ill-equipped to cope,” he says. “They cover up a naked corpse and cremate it before collecting evidence. Social convention trumps methodology, in a way it doesn’t in the cities. And, as the books reflect, this comes at the cost of justice.”
Tales from the task force: When law-enforcers tell their story
Khaki Files — Inside Stories of Police Missions (2019) As a one-time director-general of the Tihar prison and former police commissioner of Delhi, Neeraj Kumar has witnessed a side of the capital that few Indians see. Khaki Files recounts the high-profile cases of his career – 2001’s terror attack on Parliament, the 2012 gang-rape of a physiotherapist, a gang of serial killers, a rigged lottery system – and the challenges of cracking them under intense national scrutiny.
The Barabanki Narcos: Busting India’s Most Notorious Drug Cartel (2019) Retired police officer Aloke Lal rewinds to the Uttar Pradesh of 1984 where, as a young chief of police in Barabanki, he was tasked with breaking up an organised opium-smuggling network. The town is poor, drugs bring black money. Naturally there’s political support. Lal’s memories cover highway ambushes, communally driven mass shootings, Lucknow’s brothels, the lexicon of criminal code-words and how he made informants out of recovering addicts — all culminating in one of India’s largest opium busts.
Me against the Mumbai Underworld (2018) In his memoir, Isaque Bagwan, who retired as assistant commissioner of police in 2009, presents a Mumbai now only seen in cinema. Gangsters terrorise middle-class neighbourhoods. The licence Raj gives rise to smugglers who turn informants. The 1993 blasts, for the first time, shake Mumbai’s faith in its everyday cosmopolitanism. And the 26/11 attacks become as much about a 12-member team annihilating killers as keeping curious civilians away from Nariman House. Bhagwan is the quintessential Bambaiiya: “On some days, you are no less than Sherlock Holmes; on others, you are just a regular policeman on bandobast duty,” he says.
Blood On My Hands: Confessions Of Staged Encounters (2015) An anonymous army officer discloses the truth behind staged encounters and disturbing human-rights violations in the North-East, to investigative journalist and conflict specialist Kishalay Bhattacharjee. The region has lately opened up to business and tourism, but the book offers a reminder of instances of abuse that include rapes in Manipur, gangs that supply victims to meet kill tallies in Assam, and bombings of unconfirmed militant hideouts in Nagaland.
Dial D for Don: Inside Stories of CBI Missions (2015) Neeraj Kumar recounts 11 stories from when he served in CBI, tales that offer glimpses into the way crime spreads across state and national borders. Tourism’s golden triangle, Delhi-Agra-Jaipur, shows its darker side as they bust an organised gang of fake guides tricking White visitors into rebooking cars and hotel rooms. Quiet Sarvapriya Vihar in South Delhi becomes the site of an 11-hour raid to rescue a kidnapped businessman, resulting in three arrests and three deaths. A mobster’s network across Rajasthan, Daman, MP, Pakistan and Dubai is traced back to an Ahmedabad suburb. And a 1993 blasts accused gets shot at a hospital in Mumbai.
The crime compendiums
The Unfathomable Lives: Biographies of Indian Serial Killers (2020) Researchers SA Deepak and S Ramdoss veer from the narrative storytelling style to present profiles of eight convicted serial killers in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The cases draw on research by the Department of Criminology, University of Madras, from 2011 to 2016. They use data, field research, prison interviews and meetings with survivors. But what emerges is that despite recurring factors in the lives of the killers, interactions matter more than demographics in generating a motivation to kill.
The Detective Diaries: Eleven Sensational cases of the Kolkata Police (2019) Archival true-crime cases from 1947 to 2010 form the heart of additional police commissioner Supratim Sarkar’s book, translated from the Bengali by Yajnaseni Chakraborty. The tales of conmen, thieves and murderers are intertwined with Kolkata’s rich history. And there’s the infamous unsolved 1989 case dubbed the ‘Stoneman murders’, in which 13 people were killed in six months from hits to the head with a heavy stone.
Queens of Crime: True Stories of Women Criminals from India (2019) Sushant Singh and Kulpreet Yadav look at women who’ve killed toddlers and run prostitution and drug-peddling rings. The 10 short tales of women criminals have a surprising common thread – they show that women bear the brunt of troubled circumstances, no matter where they live.
Kidnapped: True Stories of Abduction, Ransom and Revenge (2019) Using police investigations, eyewitness reports and perspectives of the accused, journalist Arita Sarkar recreates 10 child-abduction cases across India. Be it Coimbatore, Nadiad or Noida, common elements echo: a family with new money, a kidnapper known to the parents, events that never unfold as planned. And of course, the universal horror of having your child go missing.
The Dirty Dozen: Hitmen of the Mumbai Underworld (2017) A veteran crime journalist, using the pseudonym Gabriel Khan, shows that in Mumbai, you’re just one traffic jam away from the site of an ’80s gang showdown. There’s gunfire at the Dadar flower market. An arrested assassin, en route to JJ Hospital, gets a chance to slip away as his associates fire at the police. Bullets fly back and forth for four hours at Lokhandwala Complex, as a don’s aide meets his end.
Bhais of Bengaluru (2017) Crime journalist Jyoti Shelar backtracks to tell the story of Bengaluru’s first don, a real-estate kingpin named Kodigehalli Mune Gowda, who operated in the ’60s. See Bengaluru grow into a modern city over the following decade, even as fresh blood including MP Jayaraj and Kotwal Ramachandra takes over; new players – ‘Boot House’ Kumar aka Oil Kumar, Muthappa Rai and Agni Sreedhar – emerge; and the fight gets bloodier even as, on the surface, the city transforms into the yuppie metro we know it as today.
One-villain crime waves
Gunning for the Godman: The True Story Behind Asaram Bapu’s Conviction (2020) Ajay Lamba recounts his investigation, as DCP Jodhpur (West), into the rape of a residential school student by the godman Asaram Bapu who ran it. The book covers Asaram’s many escape attempts, the uproar and intimidation from his disciples, the media frenzy, his arrest 10 days later, the four-year trial and eventual conviction. Through it all, it showcases how much religion and old hierarchies hold sway in small towns, how easy it is to exploit a disciple’s daughter, and how often paperwork errors let criminals off the hook.
Tales of Man Singh: King of Indian Dacoits (2018) The new edition of Kenneth Anderson 1961 book comes nearly half a century later. Man Singh, more sly vigilante than dacoit, was chased by 1,700 policemen across 8,000 square miles for 15 years before he was gunned down in 1955. His was a world where a farmer would be wrongfully accused, lose honour, spend a decade in prison and emerge an outlaw. Thakurs plot against him, zamindars fleece the poor, traders make dirty deals and the peasants, touched by his generosity and protection, call him Raja.
Bihar Diaries: The True Story of How Bihar’s Most Dangerous Criminal Was Caught (2018) Bihar in the 2000s was in the grip of what the media liked to call the ‘jungle raj’. Samant Pratap, with a tally of 40 murders, was the dreaded kingpin. So when Pratap and his gang broke out of prison in 2006 to go on a killing spree in small-town Shekhpura, it was up to Amit Lodha, the young local superintendent of police, to clean things up. This is a look at lawlessness, caste politics, and keeping the peace in a district with barely 150 policemen. Lodha, at one point, discovers a mole in his team. He resorts to taking the fax machine home to communicate securely with his superiors.