‘Justice is not retribution’
Six years ago on one January morning, state bus driver, Santosh Mane, went on a rampage, mowing down vehicles and people, who came in his way. The Supreme Court will take a decision on his fate today (December 12). When the news first broke out, there was public debate on Mane’s state of mind. The episode and aftermath had shocked Salil Desai, a Pune-based author, who has now crafted a gripping fictional tale based on this incident. The Sane Psychopath, published by FingerPrint, is the story of one state bus driver, Shanker Lande, who goes berserk after his request to be given duty on Solapur route was denied. It was a difficult book to write, but Desai has succeeded in exploring all sides — the plight of the perpetrator, of the victims’ families, the working of the judiciary and the police and the role of society. He has packed all this into one slim volume, without making the book tedious or preachy.
More from the author:
In the acknowledgments section, you have said that you submitted a two-page synopsis to your publishers in 2012. But it was in 2017 that you turned in the manuscript. Can you explain your state of mind in the intervening years?
Yes, I had submitted a two-page synopsis to my publishers in 2012. But somehow it took me a long time to figure out the right structure for the narrative. I made a couple of false starts, which were either too shallow or too melodramatic. I wanted to write a riveting, hard-hitting story that put this mass-killing phenomenon in perspective from a socio-psychological point of view, especially because this was the first such incident that had occurred in India, to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile, my first Inspector Saralkar book, Killing Ashish Karve (2014) had met with success and my publisher was interested in doing a series.
So I stepped back and concentrated on writing two more books of the Inspector Saralkar Mystery series — The Murder of Sonia Raikkonen (2015) and 3 and a Half Murders (2017), while also doing research on The Sane Psychopath and following the Mane case.
As soon as I finished writing 3 and a Half Murders in early 2016, I applied and was selected for the prestigious, month-long Hald International Writers Residency Fellowship in Denmark. That’s where things fit into place — the structure, the plot elements, the characters, the balance between reality and imagination and, most importantly, the tone of the narrative. I began writing The Sane Psychopath in June 2016 and completed the manuscript by mid-2017.
How soon after Mane went on a rampage, did you realise that this incident could be developed into a thriller?
When the Mane incident happened on January 25, 2012 I was shell-shocked like every other Punekar. As I said, this was the first incident of its kind in India, where a man went on a mass-killing spree for reasons other than terrorism. We have often heard of mass-shootings in the USA, but nothing of the kind had happened in India. So what intrigued me most was why did it happen? Why did an apparently sane man go berserk one day? What were the triggers? And even more disturbing was that this was so much more horrifying than a shooting incident. How could a man drive through a city smashing everything in his way — people and vehicles — for almost 50 minutes? If it was rage, how could rage last for that long, especially when he realised what he was doing? And if it was insanity, then how come no one noticed signs of it before, because after all he was a state bus driver. Finally, the fact that he went on the rampage, killing people randomly suggests some deep-felt resentment at society. That’s why I thought, this incident had the potential to be developed into a meaningful thriller.
You have authored mystery/ crime thrillers in the past. But in this one you have also explored the socio-legal angle in depth. Did you attempt to meet Mane’s lawyers or family members?
No, I made no attempt to meet Mane, his lawyers or anyone connected to the victims. There was enough information available in the public domain, including court judgments to understand the nuances of what exactly occurred. Moreover, I was clear right from the start that I would be writing a fictional story triggered by this horrific event. I wanted to be able to take creative liberty, discover my own interpretations and comment on various aspects of the social and psychological crisis of the society we live in today and its effects on individuals.
I wanted to talk about idealism, which drives the young lawyer Varun Gupte in my book, to fight the indefensible case for the manic driver, Shanker Lande, as well as the suffering of the victims and their valid sense of anger and urgency to see justice done. I wanted to talk about how media coverage and politicisation manufactures outrage and affects our ability as a society to think for ourselves. I wanted to also talk about how mental and psychological disease is stigmatised and remains largely untreated — so much so that I wonder how many of us are walking land-mines who might blow up at any time because of all the stress and frustration and depression that we keep suppressed. In a sense, any one of us could either be the perpetrator or the victim — the driver who went on a killing spree or those who were crushed under his wheels, just because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
You have tried to present all sides of the story. Is that a necessity when you are writing a novel inspired by a real-life episode, which is still fresh in people’s mind?
What I have tried to do is write about things that trouble and disturb me. The questions that arose in my mind about everyone involved and, more importantly, the process by which crime and punishment is adjudicated in a society like ours which is in the midst of great flux. A real-life incident of this proportion is an opportunity to pause and reflect and analyse the triggers and the consequences.
If, as a writer, I have chosen this theme of mass killing, I can only do justice to it if I go deep into every aspect of the matter and shine a light on how different sides react to the event — the victims and their families, the perpetrator, the justice system, the politicos, the media, the general public — especially because everything happened in full public view.
The Supreme Court has called for reports on the driver’s mental health during his imprisonment, before they take a final decision on his appeal. This is exactly what a justice system is expected to do — take a considered, enlightened view. As I have said in my book, justice is not retribution.