The Indian Art of Murder

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We know Sherlock ‘elementary’ Holmes, we know Hercule ‘little grey cells’ Poirot and we know Philip ‘I collect blondes and bottles’ Marlowe. Now, several writers are making a pitch for the next great detective—from India

Readers, watch your footstep. In the intriguing confines of medieval Delhi, there’s blood and gore afoot. There’s conspiracy in the air so thick it can be cut with a knife. The blood-stained body of one Mirza Murad Begh has been fished out and a bechara low-life has been accused of murder. Shahjehanabad is abuzz. But not to worry, coffee-drinking (‘Allah, so bitter’) sleuth Muzzafar Jang is about. The royal detective sips the dark, warm liquid and is on the trail to uncover who did what. Welcome to The Englishman’s Cameo by debutante writer Madhulika Liddle. So goes the plot of her book, unusually, a murder mystery set in the Mughal era. But she isn’t the only one. There are more and more whodunnits giving the Indian experience a mysterious spin. Indian detectives are at the fictive threshold.

“As a reader, I was always fascinated by history,” says Liddle, who has been writing short fiction for years. One of her earliest stories won the Commonwealth Short Story competition in 2003. Over years of professional experience in the corporate sector—the hospitality industry to instructional design—she kept up her parallel life as writer. Indeed, she seems a most unlikely writer of detective fiction. Affable and unassuming, one would be easily taken by surprise on knowing about her life as a detective fictionist.

“I’ve been very interested in mystery and history. But almost all the great detective books have been from other cultures. There are famous British, American, Belgian and even Egyptian detectives. But we don’t have our very own detective heroes, while there is such a mine of material if you look at our history,” she says.

On her part, Liddle was inspired by her long walks and readings on Old Delhi and the Mughal era. Indeed, her hero, Muzaffar Jang, happens to be a great lover of coffee. It adds more masala to the entire narrative, she feels, a detective who has his quirks. But is there any more gold she dug up while researching for the book? “Yes. Coffee came from the Middle East to India at that time [the Mughal era],” she gushes. The self-confessed trivia buff also hit upon the discovery that during this time, the use of paper, too, had just begun taking off in India. “The book required a lot of research and immense fact-checking so that the story was authentic to its context,” she explains. “But that’s the fun part of it. You discover a whole new world, in fact the Old World, of your ancestral past.” Liddle is at work on another book on Muzaffar Jang, and ihas become the first of a series.

British journalist Tarquin Hall, though, has a different focus. Having lived and worked in Delhi as a correspondent for various Western media, he has been witness to a city on the make for the last decade-and-a-half. Speaking to Open from London, Hall is at a bit of a loss to explain how his recent book, The Case of the Missing Servant (the first in a series), came about. “Writing detective fiction was the last thing on my mind,” he says. “I had absolutely no clue I would be writing about a Punjabi detective living in a place close to latter-day Gurgaon, cribbing and complaining about the New India of malls and flyovers,” he chuckles.

The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Vish Puri, a typical middle-class Delhiite who is a private eye. “What I find most interesting about the genre is that it can become a vehicle to understand the society around you. Vish Puri, came about when I was working as a journalist in Delhi. I did a series of stories on how private detectives operate in Delhi. I was privy to their secrets and learnt how they operated. Also, there was clearly a steep rise in Delhi’s crime graph. That experience opened my eyes to the other side of the growth story of India,” he emphasizes.

Indeed, Puri is a character who goes about his daily business investigating maids and maalis, while leading the family-oriented life of most middle-of-the-road Dilliwallas. “There are aunts and tau-jis popping in and out of Puri’s home all the time,” laughs Hall. Is he corrupt? “No!” Hall shoots back. “Some of the cops are, but Puri has worked his way up in an upright manner,” says Hall. But Hall appears to have an eye for social commentary too. Puri, as a character, left his place in Delhi in the middle of the 1990s to live in a house that he built, which is close to present-day Gurgaon. What he finds is an entire area on the make. His search for a haven appears to be a constantly slipping one.

If in the process of writing a detective tale, Hall comes up with moments of insight into Indian life, there are also questions of authenticity that arise. “How authentic is Vish Puri and how true to the ground situation is your depiction of India?” I summon the courage and ask. “Do you think you’ve run the risk of stereotyping India?”

Hall pauses and answers the question over a crackling phone line. “Yes, there is. But so what? Also, the question of authenticity applies to Indians writing about Indians as well as Englishmen like me. I’m quite clear that my Vish Puri books are targeted at a Western reading audience, not necessarily an Indian one. Although the response has been generally receptive, I’ve not stuck by stereotypes about India as such. Strangely, my character happens to be critical of America and American culture impinging itself on urban North India. I got some flak from American readers instead of Indians,” muses Hall, “But as far as adhering to stereotypes goes, I don’t think any writer would do so consciously.”

Over his time in India, says Hall, he found the work of private detectives and their secret recognition by parts of Indian society itself strange. Hall happens to have Indian relatives through marriage. During the course of his work on private detective agencies in Delhi, he came to know how some imminent Indian couples checked the “morality and character quotient” of their possible life partners. “I asked this bright young woman, whose family came to know that the possible groom had hired private detectives to find out if she was of ‘good character’, would she marry into a family that did something like that. And she said, ‘Yes’!” hollers Hall. “That’s one of the strangest things about India.”

But if you thought Hall and Liddle were doing something interesting, watch out for Partha Basu, who has just come out with one of the most distinguishing books in recent detective fiction. In The Curious Case of 221B, Basu questions what generations have received from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mellifluous pen. “History is full of instances of hero worship and deification,” says Basu, “and I am against that. I wrote this book to fictionalise what might have been Watson’s contributions to Holmes’ successes.” Basu’s book takes up a number of the cases that Holmes cracks. However, in a startling twist, he delineates how Holmes may have goofed up on a lot of them. His point is to bring to light Watson’s various roles in solving the riddles.

On probing further, I discover Basu’s fascination for writing of the sort he has done may also originate from his passion for quizzing. He has already written a quiz book and was a finalist at the BBC’s Mastermind India programme in 1999. But why this fascination for Holmes? Why this need to give Watson’s side of things?

Basu labours over the question before issuing forth. I probe him with another query: “What would you ask Doyle if you happened to meet him in person?” Basu happens to be a bit of a Holmes scholar, having a tremendous command over nearly all Holmes stories, and having read 50 scholastic studies on him. Indeed, his manuscript went for vetting to the The Sherlock Holmes Society of London—a literary and social society that publishes a scholarly journal and organises activities around Holmes. “They only found around eight errors in the book, which were later rectified,” smiles Basu with pride. But I persist with my question. “I would want him to answer three questions that have fascinated me ever since I became obsessed with Holmes,” says Basu. “One: why have you made Holmes a chauvinist? Two: why is Holmes so arrogant? Three: how much of Holmes’ character has your own traits, Mr Doyle?”

Basu reckons Doyle’s life—or aspirations at least—get reflected in Holmes. Indeed, the latter appears as a sort of wish-fulfilment for the author. “Doyle took up many lost causes and led a tumultuous life,” says Basu. “That’s part of the fascination of Holmes.” Basu explains how Doyle’s controversial defence of the Boer War in South Africa, his later pamphleteering to bring notice the atrocities in Congo in the early 20th century, and, more importantly, his role in fighting the case of an India-born Parsi doctor accused of mutilating animals—really a personal life full of tension—gets reflected here and there in Holmes. “His own marital life was unsuccessful. Was that why Holmes was patronising to women?” Basu asks.

Right through some of the Holmes tales Basu reinterprets, there is a clearly defined and important role the female characters play. All these qualities combine to give Basu’s book a very original slant. So is he following up with another one on Holmes? “No,” he says. “The next work is about the lives of Indian women married to white-collar Indians in Silicon Valley, California. It’s totally different!” Talk about range.

Arguably, the most well-established among these recent whodunnit writers is Kalpana Swaminathan. The Page 3 Murders—the first of the ‘Lalli’ series—again has a strong female component. The detective is a retired policewoman. As someone who was reared on mystery and detective fiction, Swaminathan, who had been writing short fiction for years, just decided one day in the morning, as she pored over her collection of books, all of which she had exhausted, that it was time to create one of our very own detectives.

The setting for Swaminathan’s work itself has all the elements and colour of Indian social life. In The Page 3 Murders, Swaminathan etches sharp vignettes of the ‘Page 3’ circuit in Mumbai. To boot, the book is largely set in a villa—where the murders take place—peopled with your so-called ‘high society’ types. The scene is set when a paediatrician who has inherited the home from her miserly uncle decides to invite a select clique of people to spend a weekend with her in true Mumbai ‘page 3’ style. The bunch includes a model, a gossip columnist, a jazz dancer, a controversial doctor and his millionaire wife and a tycoon. In the midst of all this is a quirky chef, whose menu is as intriguing as him. He serves up a potted history of India in a menu where each dish is given a date and place of origin—for example, Pomegranate Nectar Harappa 2500 BC. Lalli and her niece (who narrates the tale) are among the guests.

Swaminathan thrives on fleshing out details as a writer. “It’s important for me to create characters that have gathered shape, form and resonance. They need to be evolving as people through the narrative,” she explains. In that sense, it’s not just a detective story for her. The genre becomes an instrument for some probing characterisation, even social commentary and critique. And the relentless rain beating down through the book and the villa become characters in themselves: an atmosphere fizzing with tension. All this required a lot of research too. “The more you know about what you want to write, the easier it becomes,” she says.

With stories like these, Indian detective fiction appears to have reached a turning point. Beyond the likes of Liddle, Hall, Basu and Swaminathan are writers like Ashok Banker and Shashi Warrier, who have produced crime fiction for more than a decade. And not to forget, contemporary crime writers like Mukul Deva. Another writer set to debut in India is Singapore-based Shamini Flint. She will introduce us to Inspector Singh with Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder.

“The beauty of detective fiction,” says Basu, “is that there are so many kinds of them. The Americans have their Sam Spade, the British their Holmes and Poirot, then why not an Indian detective for us?” It’s an opinion Liddle seconds. Nearly all these writers are continuing to write about the detectives they have created. So watch out. The Indian spy has come in from the cold.