The Blue Bar by Damyanti Biswas
ISBN: 9781662503917 (Paperback)
ASIN: B09S6TF52M (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B09NKMQ9RK (Kindle edition)
Page Count: 385
Release Date: January 1, 2023
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Genre: Fiction | Literary Thriller
On the dark streets of Mumbai, the paths of a missing dancer, a serial killer, and an inspector with a haunted past converge in an evocative thriller about lost love and murderous obsession.
After years of dancing in Mumbai’s bars, Tara Mondal was desperate for a new start. So when a client offered her a life-changing payout to indulge a harmless, if odd, fantasy, she accepted. The setup was simple: wear a blue-sequined saree, enter a crowded railway station, and escape from view in less than three minutes. It was the last time anyone saw Tara.
Thirteen years later, Tara’s lover, Inspector Arnav Singh Rajput, is still grappling with her disappearance as he faces a horrifying new crisis: on the city’s outskirts, women’s dismembered bodies are being unearthed from shallow graves. Very little links the murders, except a scattering of blue sequins and a decade’s worth of missing persons reports that correspond with major festivals.
Past and present blur as Arnav realizes he’s on the trail of a serial killer and that someone wants his investigation buried at any cost. Could the key to finding Tara and solving these murders be hidden in one of his cold cases? Or will the next body they recover be hers?
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Advanced Praise for The Blue Bar:
“An intense, visceral thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Biswas brings India to life in this tale of a determined detective fighting against his own department’s bureaucracy to catch a twisted serial killer who has spent years mastering his craft. Will leave you breathless!” —Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling suspense novelist
“Immersive, propulsive, and beautifully written. In this gaspingly authentic police procedural about a missing dancer and the police officer who cannot forget her, Biswas transports us to India—not only to investigate a string of murders, but to explore the dark and disturbing life of Mumbai’s bar girls. With its heart-breaking love story and Biswas’ revealing social commentary, THE BLUE BAR will change you, haunt you, and have you understanding the world in a different way.” —Hank Phillippi Ryan, USA Today Bestselling Author of HER PERFECT LIFE
Read an Excerpt:
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2002, Borivali Station
Endings are overrated. There’s only one true, certain end—everything else a load of bullshit, or how you call it, bakwaas. Beginnings, though. Beginnings are everywhere. It all began with that midnight-colored saree, thick with dark-blue sequins, its endless sea of shimmering dots stitched by hands that must have cracked and bled over the months of needle in and out of taut cloth in some dingy, godforsaken hole in one of Mumbai’s stinking alleyways.
The saree, draped well below Tara’s navel, scratched against her skin. The low-necked silver blouse scraped her shoulders, but she tried not to think about any of this, or the sweat trickling down her back while she maneuvered through the crush of bodies.
It had rained that afternoon, cooling the air, but not enough for the wide, dark shawl Tara had worn as per instructions. It was never cold enough in Mumbai for shawls. Especially not on a platform at Borivali Station during rush hour, which swarmed thicker than ants on a dead beetle. The voices of hundreds of men and women rose around her, red-uniformed porters yelling at everyone to stand back, squalling children, announcements of all the trains departing from or arriving in India’s city of dreams.
To reach the end of the platform, Tara elbowed her way through the milling passengers. Many regional languages. Body odor. Perfumes. She pushed back against the women, stepping aside for the children and the men who hustled toward her in their rush to leave the platform. If she didn’t give way to the men, they’d shove her at the shoulder if she was lucky; lower, if she wasn’t.
She reached the finish line, where she could step no farther without falling off the platform. A little stretch of emptiness in a cramped city. In the distance stood slums with their tin-and-tarpaulin roofs. Towering above them, shiny billboards advertising refrigerators and televisions, with posters featuring building-sized faces of film stars, the drunken-eyed Shah Rukh Khan, dewy Aishwarya Rai, and the tall, lean figure of the heartthrob all girls swooned over, the sweet, baby-faced Karan Virani.
At seventeen, Tara had learned enough not to swoon over a man, not even Arnav, the police constable who made her heart beat faster these days. She dismissed the posters and did as asked. Stood facing the tracks as if poised to jump down and sprint after departing trains through scattered debris.
When she’d been brought to Mumbai on one of those trains four years ago, the stench of the city had overwhelmed her: a mix of rotting vegetation, frankincense, urine, perfume, frying fish, and the hopes and despair of more people than she’d ever seen gathered in one place. She didn’t notice it anymore. Just like she took for granted her own changed smell—talcum powder and flowery perfume borrowed from the other bar girls. She could never leave, nor did she want to.
She dug in her heels instead, the expensive, pointy-toed silver shoes paired with her blue outfit, and ignored the passengers stepping off the train and navigating their way out of the mob of others waiting to board. A black-coated ticket checker gave her a quick once-over but continued his frenzied rush, sticking charts beside each of the compartment doors.
Tara shifted her weight from one heel to another. She usually got lost in crowds. Most men and even a few women towered over her. Not anymore. She felt tall, and these were absolutely the most glamorous clothes she’d worn, despite the whiff of dry cleaning each time she received them. She’d never looked better. Pity she wasn’t allowed to wear these when gyrating at the bar, where they’d have fetched her a shower of hundred-rupee notes.
Her boss never explained why he paid nearly as much for each of these weird trips to the railway station as she made in a month dancing to lewd Bollywood numbers. Sometimes she wished for more of these trips in a week. Don’t be greedy, Tara, she scolded herself, the way her mother used to, in another life.
The vibrating phone felt like a live thing in her hand. Shetty, the hefty, dark-skinned owner of the bar, had given it to her a month ago, saying she must take care not to lose this toy with its cracked screen and tiny beetle buttons, or else. She pressed the green button he’d showed her, raised the phone to her ear, and said a shaky hayylo into it. Now, said a voice at the other end. She didn’t recognize the speaker but knew what to do.
Dropping her shawl, she posed as per Shetty’s instructions, and counted off the seconds for the phone to buzz again. She donned her I-don’t-give-a-damn look, while all the male passengers, vendors, and policemen noted the drape of her blue saree, the way it left most of her slim midriff exposed, called attention to her breasts. She paid no mind to the breeze at her back, bare but for the two silver strings that held her blouse together. Her breath steady, the same as before going onstage, she longed for the swig of alcohol that helped her through the first part of each evening’s catcalls and groping.
Several low-throated lewd comments and snatches of Bollywood songs followed, but she bit back her litany of swear words. She focused on the rail tracks as if another train were on its way, one she alone knew about.
When the phone shivered in her sweaty palm, she didn’t let her relief show, nor pick up the call. Instead, as instructed, she snatched up the shawl without wearing it, and headed for the stairs leading up to the bridge. An ebb in the crowd after a mass exit of passengers allowed her to make good time. She’d practiced running in these heels.
Breathing hard, she stumbled once at a crack in the platform pavement before she took the stairs as fast as the crowd and her saree would allow her. The slanting afternoon sun caught the sequins, lighting her up. Blind to all but the gaps she slipped through, and the bodies she must kick or elbow past while not losing her balance, she kept up her pace. She must exit the station in precisely three minutes. Her boss had never told her what might happen if she didn’t. Forgetting her resolve to give up on prayers, she sent one up to Ma Kaali and raced on.
From the sixth-floor window of a nearby high-rise, a pair of binoculars stalked her progress as she ran.
Excerpt from The Blue Bar by Damyanti Biswas.
Copyright © 2023 by Damyanti Biswas.
Published with permission. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.
Apart from being a novelist, she is an avid reader of true crime, a blogger, and an animal lover. Her ambition has always been to live in a home with more books than any other item, and she continues to work toward that.