Nov 192012

One hurdle a crime writer faces is devising a plausible plot. This is true for most writers in the genre, but especially so for someone who sets their stories in a place like India.
No mere crime of passion or culpable homicide will do. There must be an element of intrigue that raises more questions than it answers. Why? Because the best real crimes in India can only be conjured up by a writer on acid; so convoluted are their plots, so full of implausible twists and turns that to summon them from the depths of your imagination would take real talent — or a hallucinogen.
Case in point: The killing this weekend near Delhi of Ponty, the billionaire businessman, by his younger brother ostensibly over the ownership of a farmhouse. (The two had also been feuding over the division of the billion-dollar company built by their father). It would be just like Richard III, except the younger brother was killed at the scene, too.
Gurudeep Singh Chadha, to give Ponty his full name, was emblematic of the new India: a tycoon thrown up by the murky nexus of business and politics. He owned real estate; held the monopoly on the liquor business in Uttar Pradesh state, home to 200 million people; and, until recently, enjoyed political patronage. Not bad for someone who began his career selling snacks on the streets.
His end was as sudden as his rise was meteoric.
According to various media reports, Ponty came to the farmhouse with between 30 and 40 men to take possession of the property. His brother, Hardeep, on hearing of Ponty’s movements, took his own armed entourage to the farmhouse, of which they both claimed ownership. An argument quickly devolved into gunfire. Hardeep shot Ponty, and was himself shot by one of his brother’s guards. Both men were killed. Police said three weapons, all licensed, and including an AK-47, were recovered from the scene. Forty rounds of ammunition were fired.
Now, since this a good, old-fashioned killing, there are more questions than answers; much grist for the conspiracy-fueled mill. Here are some being raised in the Indian media:
1. Why did the brothers, who were feuding over a company, decide to open fire over a mere farmhouse?
2. Why, if 40 rounds of ammunition were fired , were there only two fatalities (and one injury)?
3. What was the role played by the state-provided security personnel who accompanied the two men? Did they, in fact, play a role in the killing? Or did they get there too late?
Of course, these questions will be asked repeatedly and, given the flexible nature of public accountability in India, the answers will vary each time.
And given the unholy nexus of criminality, commerce and politics in India, such incidents are unlikely to be isolated or indeed act as a deterrent. For every Ponty who’s killed, there are hundreds, probably thousands of others, who only saw the life he led and the success he achieved. They form the cornerstone of the new India.
Which brings me back to fiction. The best fiction reflects society. It’s part of the reason I loved Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger so much. L’affaire Ponty is a possible postscript to that novel. It’s tragic that it had to end in violence.

Nov 172012

The political cartoonist harnessed Mumbai’s working-class rage into the the city’s most potent political force.
That he loved Mumbai, there’s little doubt — though his supporters in the Shiv Sena found a funny way of showing it. Of his politics, the less said the better.
Balasaheb was 86. R.I.P.

 Posted by at 9:12 am
Nov 152012

There’s little Indians hate more than foreigners writing (or making a film or insert your chosen art form here) about the country. This sentiment is particularly evident in a city like Bombay. “Why do they want to see only the negative side of the country?” is one question. “Who do they think they are?” is another. “Why don’t they focus on their own problems?” All, of course, are valid questions, and I’ve asked these very questions, particularly when I lived in India, about various documentaries and films that portrayed Bombay and, indeed, India.
But now that I’ve written a novel set in Mumbai from the comfort of my living room in the U.S., I have a different take. Possibly because I did get a few , “Sitting in America and writing about us…” sort of comments — mostly said half in jest. Anyhoo, that’s the reason for my reversal.
Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But I’d like to think of it more as a disinterested view.
A previous blog post chronicles a list of my favorite books on Bombay.
It’s only on revisiting that post today did I realize that four of the five books on the list were written by authors who don’t live in the city. Among them is Katherine Boo, the author of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award last night for Nonfiction.
Here’s what I wrote about the book at the time:

Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Here’s what I liked about Boo’s book: She neither patronized nor infantilized the subjects of her book. Now, that’s a rare trait in most of us with relatively privileged upbringings who deal with the poor or poverty. Boo’s focus comes from her career, which has been spent reporting on poverty in cities like Mumbai, but also in American communities.

Her reporting on the mentally retarded in Washington, D.C., won her a Public Service Pulitzer in 2000. Here’s what the awards committee said about her work at the time:

“Awarded to The Washington Post, notably for the work of Katherine Boo, that disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.”

Her article “The Marriage Cure”, which reported on Oklahoma’s efforts to promote marriage as a way out of poverty, won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004.

What is especially remarkable about Boo’s reporting is that she’s avoided the allure of reporting on the world’s “big events,” preferring instead to focus her attention on social issues. Here’s how the Guardian described her in a recent profile:

“American reporter Katherine Boo decided early on that hers would be a different route. Once and only once did she agree to write about life at the top: in 1993, as a reporter at the Washington Post, she was commissioned to write a lengthy magazine profile of the new vice-president, Al Gore.
Afterwards she felt it had been pointless. “I get tired of obsessing about characters,” she says when we meet in London. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to do that kind of work, and they’re really good at it. I think social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from, to a large extent. In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that’s where you get to go – to the White House! – and that’s too bad.”
So Boo, then in her late 20s, returned to her vocation: writing about the lives of the poorest people in America.”

I highly recommend Beyond the Beautiful Forevers if you haven’t read it yet. It’s a remarkable work of reporting that delves deeply into the lives of people whom the rest of us do our best to ignore.

Oct 222012

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the sales of Ayn Rand’s work in India.
This was the headline: :
“Why Ayn Rand outsells Karl Marx in India by 16 to 1 (and what else she tells us about countries)”

Here’s more from the article:

Rand’s minor cult status in India has been noted before. According to one report, Indians searched Google for Ayn Rand more often than anyone else until 2007, when a Tea-Party obsessed America took over the top spot. It’s typically read as a reaction to the country’s stratified social hierarchy and heavy, lumbering government, anathema to the fiercely self-sufficient heroes of Rand’s novels. Indeed, one Indian libertarian, writing a few years ago—before the rise of the Tea Party—argued that she was even more respected in India than America because Indians actually live in the “collectivist, pseudo-statist, tradition-bound, mystic society” that she would have decried (unlike American Rand fans, who only think they do.)

The Google citation presumably is based upon this Economist article, which the article cites.

What does all of this tell us about India? May I humbly suggest that the answer is nothing.
After all, it’s a country where you can buy Mein Kampf and the anti-Semitic hoax Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but where you still can’t legally buy a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
The availability of certain books and the lack of availability of others may provide a hint about reading tastes of certain groups of people, but little else.
Are there Indian who worship at the fountainhead of individualism? Sure.
Are there those who want to set up a Maoist regime? Absolutely.

Of course, is it possible that the sales of Rand’s works means the growth of individualism in India, a country where even today notions of self-expression and privacy are practically nonexistent outside the major cities. The real story would be if Rand’s works outsold Marx and others in Hindi or any of the regional languages. English, after all, is confined to a tiny sliver of the nation of 1.2 billion people. What’s 100 million people — especially when they don’t vote.

Oct 102012

While looking for information on crime fiction in India, I came across this article published in May in Tehelka magazine.

These two sentences in particular caught my eye:

Hachette publishers say that while their international detective fiction titles sell 50,000 copies in a single edition, Indian counterparts sell a tenth of that in total.

As readers of this blog know, my book, Murder in Mumbai, was released as an ebook by Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries in July. I’m still hopeful that there’ll be an Indian edition — hopefully in paperback (Penguin, Are you listening?). But the numbers cited in this story suggest why Indian publishers may be reluctant to publish mystery novels set inside the country.

This isn’t true only of mysteries. Arvind Adiga’s excellent White Tiger only got traction in India once it won the Booker Prize.

I’m as guilty of this as any Indian reader. As a child, I read Enid Blyton, an English writer. As a teenager, I read Agatha Christie. As an adult, I read Scandinavian mysteries. Even my first introduction to a mystery set in India was written by an Indian — H.R.F. Keating’s highly enjoyably Inspector Ghote series (talk about a colonized mind).

It’s not as if there isn’t crime fiction published in India. The fact is, however, that much of it is published in regional languages. And unless, it’s one of the major languages — Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil (if I’m leaving out any, please forgive me, it’s not to suggest that all Indian languages aren’t important) — there’s little chance of it being translated into English.

This is how I read Satyajit Ray’s charming Feluda stories, and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi books. More recently, there have been translations of Tamil pulp novels by Blaft publishing, which is also behind the translation of the Urdu best-sellers Captain Hameed and Colonel Faridi (there are new , and I haven’t read them yet).

But as the Tehelka article notes there are new Indian writers setting mysteries in India. Here’s more from the article:

“Says Nandita Aggarwal, publishing director, Hachette India, ‘That the genre is becoming popular is not statistically gaugeable but one can sense a certain interest in the market. There are more authors writing. Last year, we published five books in the series as opposed to none before. It is not a paradigm shift. But the market is exploring the genre.’”

Hopefully, the “market” will be able to sustain more translations as well as more works in English.

Sep 192012

The other day, I saw a tweet recommending my book, Murder in Mumbai. As any first-time writer can attest, positive feedback is a validation.
Of course, there’s the positive feedback from friends and family. I think of those like the internal tracking polls that the Republicans and Democrats run for their respective candidates: Mostly positive (from an unexpected source: “Super!), but with some incisive critiques (My mother: “It would have been better if there were a love story at the center.” Mothers always cut right to it).
But it’s the negative feedback — the bad reviews — that have more of an impact.
Let me explain.
My thoughts on the matter could stem from the kerfuffle over mystery writer R.J. Ellory’s reviews on; or The New York Times story on the company that writes fake reviews (for a fee, of course); or because I visit Amazon at least twice a day to see my (steadily slipping) ranking and to read and reread the reviews of my book. Either way, despite what other writers may say, reviews do matter to me. Especially bad ones.
I spent the period before the publication of Murder in Mumbai worrying about what people would say. I vowed to be one of those writers who is so self-assured that (s)he doesn’t need validation. Of course, on the morning of the publication, I ran to Amazon.
There were two reviews: One good, and one — let’s just say it wasn’t flattering. As I read and reread it, instead of feeling rage or whatever you’re supposed to feel when someone has shredded your work to bits, I was amused. Amused because of how well written the critique was. I saw immediately that it wasn’t a personal attack (I’m just not famous enough for that). I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it, but there were bits in it that made me laugh in much the same way I’d have done if the review had been about another writer’s work.
Here’s my favorite bit:

“Calamur’s prose is competent but lackluster, the sort of writing found in the middle pages of second-string newspapers. Long strings of ponderous dialog carry much of the story.
Mystery fans with a special interest in India might be drawn to this story. While it is far from awful, it fails to rise above the ordinary.”

I could see it: cover blurbs that say: ‘Far from awful.’ ‘Second-string’ writing. (Actually, I found that particularly funny given my profession).
But unless a review is unreasonable — and there are plenty of those around — this sort of criticism is quite helpful. Much of it comes to mind as I work through my second book, trying to keep the narrative going. On some days, especially on days when I find myself staring at a blank screen, the words hit harder than on others — when words flow easily.
But I know reviewers have a tough task, too. Many of them, especially the ones on Amazon, are doing it as a labor of love. They’re making the effort to read books — some good, some bad, and some just OK. They have the right, just like everyone else, to have an opinion about a writer’s work. It may not be one you like, or flattering, or even fair. But it’s there. And it’s an opinion. And the fact that the good reviews are next to the bad ones reminds me of that old Kipling line about success and failure being the same impostors.
And to illustrate how fickle personal tastes are, I’m reminded of a review I once read for a promising writer. Here’s what part of it said:

“This is an awful book. … there is nothing of credit to his writing. It is devoid of any depth. Don’t waste your brain…”

You might have heard of the book in question. It’s called War and Peace.

 Posted by at 11:11 am
Sep 112012

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi

Two stories this week made me think about the perilous state of free speech in India: One is the arrest on charges of sedition of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi; the other is older, but I was reminded of it by an excerpt of novelist Salman Rushdie’s memoir in the most-recent issue of The New Yorker.

First, the cartoon.
Trivedi is a 25-year-old cartoonist and anti-corruption activist. Two of his cartoons drew particularly strident responses, prompting a Mumbai lawyer to complain and leading to the charges against Trivedi.
In one, Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani man convicted of carrying out the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, is depicted as a dog urinating on the Indian Constitution (presumably, the complaint is that Kasab’s death sentence hasn’t yet been carried out). In another, India’s national symbol of three lions have morphed into wolves and the motto Satyamev Jayate (“The truth will triumph”) has been turned into Brashtamev Jayate (“Corruption will triumph”) — it’s a linguistic pun that makes more sense in Hindi.
Reaction to the cartoons has been mixed — even on Trivedi’s Facebook page.

One woman wrote:

“At least respect our national symbol! please dont make a joke with our prides..”

And that was one of the milder comments.

Trivedi was granted bail today, and he’s vowed to campaign against the nation’s British-era sedition laws.

“If telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one,” he’s said.

His story is hardly unique. As Soutik Biswas of the BBC has written:

“So, have Indians become more intolerant?
On the face of it, yes. In recent months, the chief minister of West Bengal state sent a professor to prison for emailing cartoons critical of her, there was a massive row over old cartoons showing Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and the government has been talking about curbs on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter”

Now, to the second story: Rushdie, the novelist, has a new memoir, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker. The excerpt deals with the novelist’s travails following the publication in 1988 of his most controversial novel, “Satanic Verses.” The book and that era hold a special memory for me. I remember going with my older sister to Folyle’s in London where they’d stocked the book behind the counter despite bomb threats. The line snaked through the store, a defiant public message if there ever were one.

In his memoir, Rushdie describes living life under a fatwa, in hiding, and not knowing if a day is your last. Mostly, he seems aggrieved that his novel was perceived more as an “insult” than a piece of literature. Of course, the book was banned in India, and Rushdie explains how that came about:

“Then, on Thursday, October 6th, his friend Salman Haidar, who was Deputy High Commissioner of India in London, called to tell him formally, on behalf of his government, that “The Satanic Verses” had been banned in India. The book had not been examined by any properly authorized body, nor had there been any semblance of judicial process. The ban came, improbably, from the Finance Ministry, under Section 11 of the Customs Act, which prevented the book from being imported. Weirdly, the Finance Ministry stated that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit” of his work. Thanks a lot, he thought.”

As we can see, things have changed little in the more than 20 years since that ban.
What does this means for India?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press and freedom of speech. India has no such guarantee. In fact, it allows for “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the general public.”
It’s easy, of course, to resort to that old saw, free speech good; restricted speech bad. But in India, everything is more complicated. A cartoon drawn with righteous indignation can lead to arrest on charges of sedition; an offhand remark can spark religious riots. Many Indians, including my friend and former editor Aakar Patel, believe India’s media should not have a U.S.-style free press. He has based his view on reporting on the 2002 Gujarat riots.
So should India’s laws allow artists and writers and cartoonists to be arrested when their work is deemed to be against the “interests of the general public”? Far be it for me to sit in the U.S. and prescribe what may or may not be good for India (for the record, I believe in Voltaire’s line: I disagree with what you say, but will defend unto death your right to say it), but surely laws governing the media and literature need to be re-examined by a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

Sep 042012

Can a city like Mumbai be the setting for noir? Here’s my take:

In the 1980s, I lived on a street in Bombay that housed the Soviet cultural center. Western movies took years to make it to theaters — that is if they came at all. We listened to music that had been popular in the ‘60s. And there were two cars on Indian roads: the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, an elephant-like giant modeled on the Morris Oxford. Nothing ever seemed to happen. But that placidity belied some tumultuous changes shaking the city. The biggest one was the shuttering of the textile mills, Bombay’s lifeblood for much of the past century. Along with those mills went thousands of livelihoods, people who’d been trained to do nothing else suddenly out of a job. And the unions that were supposed to protect them were being slowly coopted and destroyed.
Fast forward 20 years. The Soviet cultural center is now a car showroom. Hollywood movies are often released in Bombay before they are in the West, and music choices are as diverse as any other place. And there are cars; plenty of them, along with showrooms to sell Audis and Porsches and anything else you may want. But this dramatic change belies a constancy among those left behind: the old man pulling a wooden wheelbarrow laden with goods that weigh three times as much as he does; the half-naked beggar seeking pennies from the passenger who has shut the have-nots away; the migrant worker who comes to the city full of hope only to be told he doesn’t belong here. These stories aren’t unique to Bombay. A similar scenario has played out in countless other places. What they have in common is a city that’s at once welcoming and cruel, and residents at once despondent and full of hope.
That’s where noir comes in.
To me the genre has always been about characters: flawed, cynical characters, characters down on their luck, with a bleak worldview. The best place to find such people is a city.
Cities represent the best society has to offer: arts, culture, diversity, opportunity; a vital life force if you will that makes a nation hum. But they also represent the worst of humanity: crime, greed, apathy, poverty; those aspects that we’d prefer to conceal.
Both these attributes are apparent in a city like Bombay, and they are all the more apparent because of the dramatic increase in wealth — and the consequent increase in income disparity — India has seen over the past two decades. This is fertile ground for noir. Any story that focuses on such a city and its characters is bound to have elements of the genre. Indeed, Indian filmmakers have been among the first to successfully exploit this with a series of recent gripping crime dramas. Now, for a city the size of Mumbai, crime is surprisingly low. But what noir teaches us is that when you scratch below that veneer of cosmopolitanism, the world is much more interesting. That’s true whether you’re living in Mumbai, New York or Rio.

Jul 312012

At a gathering last week to mark the release of my book, Murder in Mumbai, there was one question I was asked more often than others: How did you get published?
It’s an odd sort of question because it can mean many things: What is the process of publishing? How does the publishing industry work? What steps do you take? Is it easy? But the answer I ended up giving was: “With a great deal of luck.”
I’d love to believe that my writing is so brilliant, my prose so sparkling, my insight so sharp that agents and publishers fought among themselves in order to sign me. But the David Foster Wallaces of this world are few, and I belong to a tribe whose adherents fall into one of three categories: those who want to write books, those who are writing books and those who have written books.
Of course, not all of them have been published. A former colleague of mine is one of the most incisive people I know, and I love his writing, but he’s had little luck in publishing his novels. That story extends to many others. So why me and why not them? I thought long and hard about this until I came across writer Michael Lewis’ commencement speech at Princeton this year.
Lewis, as he recounts in his book Liar’s Poker, was a student in London when he was serendipitously seated at dinner at Buckingham Palace next to the wife of a Salomon Brothers executive. That seating arrangement led to a job. That job led to more than one best-selling book, and hit movies, too. In his commencement speech, Lewis is clear about why he was successful:

“My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”

The luck to which Lewis attributes his success is hard to define. But it’s one of those things you recognize when you see: It’s the child who can run across the street despite oncoming traffic with the absolute certainty of making it to the other side. It’s the climber who stretches for an impossible-to-reach hold in the knowledge she’ll make it. It’s the confidence I possessed as a student in Bombay that I’d catch any train I chased.
Of course, there are times luck deserts us, too. The former English cricketer Ed Smith, who’s now an accomplished author and columnist (his new book is called Luck), spoke of the vicissitudes of his own career. A crucial umpiring decision ended his England career; an ankle twisted during a county game ended his cricketing career.

“It sounds like I just had an awful lot of bad luck. In actual fact, they were just the prompts that made me think about luck in a much broader sense. I realised that if you define luck as that which is beyond your control, which is implicit in the definition you used, I have been massively lucky in a much bigger sense too. For example, the luck of where I was educated, where I first learned how to play cricket. You’re 20 times more likely to go on and play for England if you go to private school rather than state school. So I suppose I started thinking about luck in a much broader sense, in terms of the social luck of where you grow up and your genetic good fortune. We tend to gloss over genetic good fortune in sport because it’s all supposed to be about effort but I know from having been in a dressing room with all range of sportsmen that the luck of genes is a massive influence on sport.”

I honestly can’t argue with any of the things either Lewis or Smith say. I’m a product of my background. I grew up reading books. I make my living through journalism. I was fortunate to write a book set in an “exotic” foreign location at the same time my publisher was looking for something different. Of course, that I went from wanting to write a book to writing one helped, but many others have done that. As Lewis said in his commencement speech:

“Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

Jul 172012

the book’s out today (you can buy it on amazon, apple and b&n).

criticism ranges from “special” to “lackluster” (ok, there were only two reviews). i hope there will be better ones (i know there will be worse ones, too). being a published writer is an odd feeling. somewhere in the writing process there is a sort of megalomania that allows you to send your work into the world, but there’s also deep insecurity about what that world will say.

still, it’s a great feeling. if you haven’t bought it already, please do. it’s only $3.99, and as an old friend on Facebook put it, at that price “I figured even you would have a good story to tell.”

 Posted by at 9:52 am