A very pukka murder: Indian historical crime fiction has come of age, these sleuths prove

Even as we celebrate the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth, it seems that crime fiction in India is finally coming of age

Arjun Raj Gaind November 13, 2016 08:34:09 IST
A very pukka murder: Indian historical crime fiction has come of age, these sleuths prove

It is ironic that the first mystery story featuring an Indian detective I ever read was written by an Englishman.

I was 12 when I first encountered Inspector Ganesh Ghote. I confess, I was hooked. Not only was Ghote a very likable protagonist, woebegone, henpecked, harassed as only a true Indian husband can be, with intrusive neighbours and a wife, whose sole purpose seemed to be to berate him constantly, but somehow, in A Perfect Murder, HRF Keating managed to get 1980s Bombay perfectly right: the corruption and the endless bureaucracy, the vibrancy of the packed streets and the distinct patois of Bombay-wallah English, even that sense of relentlessly sweaty optimism that was so prevalent before the dawn of liberalisation — it was all spot-on, capturing the city of my childhood with a panache that was blindingly intoxicating.

You can scarcely imagine my surprise when I discovered that Keating had never even set foot in India, that he had depended entirely on hearsay and old colonial geography books to recreate Ghote's Bombay. It was a mind-boggling realisation, and one that made me understand a great and ineffable truth, that books are more than mere words and paper. They are the ultimate form of escapism. A well-written book can transform a reader, transport them to a different country, a different world, even a different time.

A very pukka murder Indian historical crime fiction has come of age these sleuths prove

Indian crime fiction aficionados now have several quality titles to choose from

For the next 11 weeks, while my friends played Mortal Kombat and flirted with girls, I read every mystery I could get my hands on. There was a lending library across the street which stocked tattered dog-eared copies of old potboilers which I could borrow for 5 rupees apiece. It was there that I discovered Poirot and Miss Marple, Simon Templar and Inspector Maigret, Nero Wolfe and Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn.

My only lament was that there did not seem to be quite enough detectives from India. Other than Satyajit Ray's extraordinary Feluda, and characters like Byomkesh Bakshi and Kakababu, the pickings were all too sparse. There was Paul Mann's Anglo-Indian cop George Sansi, and Hugh and Colleen Gantzer's JAZ, who was a sort of an Indian James Bond, and Kalpana Swaminathan's Lalli series, but crime fiction seemed to be the neglected sibling of Indian writing in English, doomed to be largely ignored. In many ways, that struck me as the most peculiar mystery of them all. How could it be possible that in a nation of nearly a billion people, there wasn't a single uniquely Indian sleuth to be found?

It has taken more than two decades for that idiosyncrasy to change, but now, even as we celebrate the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth, it seems that crime fiction in India is finally coming of age.

With the international success of Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri sequence, Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series, and Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh Investigates, at long last crime aficionados are seemingly spoiled for choice.

This year, amongst the most interesting releases were Bhaskar Chattopadhay's cerebral thriller Patang, and Vaseem Khan's The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, the latest in the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series, which chronicles the adventures of retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra, and his baby elephant. Also, Susan Oleksiw's female sleuth, Anita Ray, returned for her fourth adventure with When Krishna Calls, and Anita Nair's Bengaluru-based Inspector Gowda returned in Cut-Like Wound, floundering through the hidden world of child trafficking in India.

Even better, as 2016 draws to a close, a host of new detectives of Indian origin are all set to make their presence felt globally.

Among the most exciting are Ravi Chandra Singh, a London-based religious-scholar-turned-private-investigator, who makes his debut in Her Nightly Embrace by Adi Tantimedh, the first of a trilogy which is already being developed as a TV series starring Sendhil Ramamurthy of Heroes fame.

Ambai, the celebrated Tamil author, is set to introduce us to her detective, Sudha Gupta, an Indian version of Miss Marple, in A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge, and very soon, Gauri Sinh, India's answer to Camilla Lackberg, will debut her beauty-queen-turned-investigator, heralding the arrival of a new generation of strong female protagonists.

When it comes to historical detectives though, sadly options in India are still somewhat limited. In the west, it is an enormously popular genre, with best-selling stalwarts like Lindsay Davis's Falco series set in Flavian-era Rome, Jason Goodwin's Yashim the Eunuch series set in Ottoman Turkey, Boris Akunin's Ernst Fandorin sequence set in Imperial Russia, and CJ Sansom's Tudor detective Matthew Shardlake, not to mention authors like Paul Doherty, Margaret Frazer, Ruth Downie, John Madox Roberts, Steven Saylor, Jacqueline Winspear, and Sulari Gentill, all of whom are have dedicated legions of loyal followers.

In India, it was Madhulika Liddle who pioneered historical detective fiction with the Muzzafar Jang cycle, comprising the novels The Englishman’s Cameo, Engraved in Stone and Crimson City, all of which are set against the picturesque backdrop of the 17th century Mughal Empire. Other than that, there are a few experiments in Sherlockiana that have been well received, chiefly Jamyang Norbu's The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, which chronicled Sherlock Holmes's adventures in Tibet after his apparent demise at Reichenbach Falls, and Vasudev Murthy's excellent Holmes: The Missing Years, of which two volumes have been published so far; the first set in Japan and the second in Timbuktu. Another interesting series worth reading is Brian Stoddart's police procedural sequence set in 1920s colonial India, featuring Superintendent Le Fanu of the Madras Constabulary, of which three episodes have been published so far, A Madras Miasma, The Palampur Predicament, and A Straits Settlement.

This year as well, there have been several notable historical mysteries published, perhaps the most acclaimed of which is Abir Mukherjee's A Rising Man, which won the Telegraph Harville-Secker Crime Writing Competition a few years ago. It is the first in a series featuring Sam Wyndham, a veteran of Scotland Yard and the First World War, who arrives in India in 1919 to join the Calcutta Police, and follows his struggles to forget his personal ghosts while navigating through the treacherous underbelly of the decaying years of British India.

My own humble attempt at creating an authentic Indian historical detective series hits the shelves this very month with A Very Pukka Murder, published in India by Harper Collins and in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press. Set in the fictional princely state of Rajpore, deep in the heart of British Punjab, it is the first installment in a trilogy introducing Sikander Singh, a Maharaja with a passion for solving mysteries.

On the first morning of 1909, the British Resident of Rajpore is found dead in his bed. The authorities are all too ready to dismiss it as a case of suicide, but the Maharaja, who cannot resist an enigma, decides to investigate. Despite the objections of the local Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police, he deduces that the Resident was poisoned by a massive dose of strychnine. Even as the British dispatch their own investigator from Simla, Sikander overcomes obstacles, false trails, and the growing hostility of the English Establishment, all while discovering that Major Russell was not as pukka, as proper, as he liked to pretend.

Needless to say, regardless of whether you prefer classical whodunnits or contemporary psychological thrillers, one thing is certain; that now is undoubtedly an exciting time to be a fan of Indian crime fiction. If one last great barrier remains unbroken, it is the cross-over from book to screen. We can only hope that producers will wake up to the realisation that the great Indian crime renaissance has begun, and in the near future, we will soon be able to enjoy a host of original Indian detectives on television as well, right up there, next to shows like True Detective, Broadchurch and Luther.

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