At night Gangtok aches for a detective. Or perhaps a vigilante. Some hunched figure on the hill, ragged and worn like the rain-stained stone behind him, but harder and rougher still. Cars wheel down the hairpin zags of the mountain, their headlights briefly spinning the man’s silhouette long and dangerous. Though his gait may be a casual shuffle or a gun-shot stagger, he has the irrepressible air of driving forwards, towards the truth and justice, or some bloody facsimile thereof.
Gangtok might not be the biggest, scariest city the in the world, but it has thefts, and rackets, and murders just the same. Horrific double murders and crimes of passion punctuate a politics-heavy recap of the aughts in Sikkim, as do the exploits of “the Spiderman” — a local celebrity cat burglar turned ruthless bandit whose violent escapes and more violent arrests, not to mention multiple homicides, eventually take on Dillingerian proportions. Besides, you only need one for a good mystery. And its messy, dirty, chipped at, alley-twisted landscape — all rooftop clotheslines and steep, unlevel steps — it all begs to be the set of, by night, a grim and personal film noir or by day a breathless and drum-thumping parkour thriller.
What better spot for a chase scene? Looking out the office window, a part of me tenses gleefully to think of free running along the wide ledges and jumping across the easy gaps between buildings, of scrambling up and down the sides of stairways to grab balconies or open windows. This is the same part of me that loves the superhuman acrobatics of Spider-Man, Batman and Daredevil, and the all-too-human flights of Indiana Jones or Jason Bourne. (The same part that spent the church Sundays of my youth mentally choreographing tapestry-swinging sword fights about the pews.) That Hollywood and all their host of swashbucklers and spies have not discovered this place is a sad affair indeed.
What better town for a hunted and haunted detective to track down witnesses and leads? In a city this vertical nothing stays secret. Every road, though dim and desolate at night, is overlooked from the windows and roofs of the buildings above it on the hill, and every road in turn sees into the windowed rooms of the buildings below. Plus, with cliff on one side and cliff wall on the other, and no sidewalks to speak of, our hero or antihero will make a plump target to anyone with a car and a desire to see his investigation dropped.
At first glance Gangtok might seem too happily colorful to hold a truly hardboiled story, a genre usually drawn in black and white, smoke and shadow. But from the harsh, watery neon of Taxi Driver to the suburban pastels of Brick, color used properly can do wonders for the sense of unspoken tension or urban decay that film noir fans love. It might be hard to imagine a body sprawled out in the small, dry rice patties, caked with dust and blood, but put one there and I suspect it will be hard to stop.
When I walk home at night, hints of stories come unbidden. My path is pleasant during the day; I stroll past flowers and sunlit trees, playing children and napping dogs. In the evenings, though, the children are gone, and the dogs bark guardedly from the darkness. The unpaved parts seem more treacherous, and the sputtering hoses entirely sinister. And all day, morning or night, my nostrils occasionally choke with burning plastic or excrement, and I remember that things really are unclean beneath the clutter.
Gangtok is no Gotham, and never will be Tinseltown. But if you wander down the hill in the evening and let the shadows dance their dances in your periphery, it develops its own addictive danger and dark charm. There are hundreds, thousands, countless many of these photogenic cities forgotten or never discovered in Asia and the rest of the developing world. Uncovering them and tugging them, briefly anyways, into the light…that might be the best detective story of all.