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.

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.