Murder, they wrote

Feb 05, 2012, 07:57 IST | Lhendup G Bhutia

Forget the pipe- smoking, brooding detective who wears his trench coat with its collars up. Indian publishing houses are now looking beyond chick-lits and novels set at IITs, and churning out a growing number of Indian crime fiction titles, whose detectives look nothing like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but pack a punch all the same

Former journalist and popular blogger Kiran Manral's first novel The Reluctant Detective starts like many books do these days. A thirty-something woman who wears "a triple-support harness-like bra" is getting ready for a party when she finds that her clothes are either too tight or terribly outdated. She is worried about her increasing weight, and feels she might have to carry a rock to hide behind at the party. Make that a boulder, the character says. Much of the first chapter progresses this way. Although Manral denies that her book belongs to the chick-lit genre, there is too much of the colour pink , accompanied by a large trendy stiletto on her book cover, to believe otherwise.

Annie Zaidi's (in picture) A Suitable Girl is part of an anthology
of noir writings called Mumbai Noir. Her story, set in Mira
Road, looks at the idea of a fringe society, and the notions t
hat people have of it. It presents two points of view, that of
a girl who moves from posh Juhu to Mira Road, and a Mira Road
local who stalks her.
Pics/ Pradeep Dhivar

But look closely, and at the base of the stiletto in this unabashedly girlie book cover, is a spattering of blood. And by the end of the first chapter, two policemen appear enquiring about a murder. Soon enough, another corpse is found, and the book becomes less chick-lit and more a classic whodunit. Surprised? In fact, you've just picked up one of the many crime fiction novels that are being churned out by the Indian publishing industry. Sample this -- Bangalore-based Zac O'Yeah's novel Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan (2011) is set in a future where India has colonised Europe and Sweden becomes Sweden Pradesh, and the Swedish town Gothenburg becomes Gautampuri. The novel takes off when a detective discovers charred body parts at a restaurant named Tandoori Mosse, just off Friendship Chowk. His next book, also a detective novel called Mr. Majestic! will be published later this year.

Here comes the deluge
Random House came out with Manisha Lakhe's The Betelnut Killers (2010), where a contract killer is hired by an NRI shopkeeper in the US, and also re-issued the classic Holmes of the Raj, where Sherlock Holmes visits India, in 2010. Westland, which brings you Manral's book, is not far behind. It published with four crime fiction titles in recent years, Sudhir Thapliyal's Mansuri Macabre (2010), Aditya Sudarshan's A Nice Quiet Holiday (2009), and Smita Jain's Kkrishnaa's Konfessions (2008) and Piggies On The Railway (2010).

Smita Jain's Kkrishnaa's Konfessions (2008) and Piggies
On The Railway (2010) blend the two genres of chick-lit and
crime fiction

Hachette India, on the other hand, after publishing Madhulika Liddle's The Englishman's Cameo (2009) and Once Upon...  is going for the gauntlet this year, so to speak. It will publish at least five crime fiction titles. These include Liddle's second outing as a crime fiction writer, The Eighth Guest and other Muzzaffar Jang Mysteries, chick-lit writer Swati Kaushal's (of A Piece Of Cake fame) attempt at crime fiction, Vijay Nair's Colour of Kurinji, and Anuradha Kumar's It Takes A Murder, apart from Mr. Majestic!. A new anthology of noir writings called Mumbai Noir , published by Akashic Books, has also just hit the stands.

How trendy
Publishers say this rise in the number of crime fiction titles was impending. According to them, mass-market fiction is booming, and they need to diversify and find titles that are not just campus novels set in IITs and IIMs, or chick-lit with gooey romances and shopping quandaries. Crime fiction is the current hottest genre globally, and, given the right kind of titles, it was only a matter of time before it would be replicated here, they say. Westland Executive Editor Deepthi Talwar says, "Publishers are now more experimental than they were before. All sorts of genres are being tried out, notable among which is crime fiction. This genre is a big one in the West; perhaps it could be one here too.

Kiran Manral held a book reading session of her crime fiction
novel The Reluctant Detective at the salon Jean Claude Biguine
in Bandra

A few years ago, there were hardly any crime fiction titles. Now, almost every publishing house has a few titles up its sleeve."  As O'Yeah, who is also a literary columnist, points out, there have always been a number of Indian detective novels around, for instance the 1970s Jaz Zadu thrillers by Shyam Dave, and Ashok Banker's crime trilogy that consisted of The Iron Bra, Ten Dead Admen and Murder & Champagne that appeared in the 1990s, but it is only in the last five years that genre fiction in English has taken off in India. "First there was lad-lit, chick-lit and all that, and now some newer writers have diversified into crime fiction. It always takes a few decades before one can speak of a "tradition", so we'll have to wait and see if this is just a fad or a phenomenon that has come to stay," he says.

Genre mixing
However, none of the titles stick to traditional notions of crime and detective fiction. There is no pipe-smoking, brooding detective in a trench coat, whose past is as mysterious as the crime he is solving. Manral's protagonist in fact goes through her entire wardrobe and claims she has nothing fit to wear; when she discovers a dead body, she starts applying make up so that she looks presentable just in case a television news crew asks her for a byte. Genres, therefore, are blending and merging. Jain claims that her books are chick-lit that are also crime fiction, and if O'Yeah's characters are set in the future, Liddle's two books are set in the 17th century, featuring Mughal detective Muzaffar Jang.

Hachette India's Editorial Director, Adult and Business Books, Nandita Aggarwal says, "It took a while for Indian crime-fiction writers to find their own voice, and they are doing so now. One cannot just imitate crime fiction as it is globally. It needs to be redefined to suit Indian sensibilities." O'Yeah states that the only tradition a writer should never deviate from is the rule that says that a crime novel must have some crime as a starting point. Otherwise, everything goes. "Maybe, the very gritty American type of crime fiction doesn't work as well in India, and people prefer light and humorous crime novels. If that is the case, then it is an organic development and it may produce some interesting books in the long run."

A daylight robbery
Chennai-based publishing house Blaft, which was set up in 2008 with the intention of translating Tamil pulp fiction works into English and introducing them to a wider audience, could not resist the urge of dipping their hands into this trend by resuscitating many well-known Hindi and Urdu crime fiction titles, two of which were by bestselling Hindi writer Surender Mohan Pathak. Pathak's 300 novels have reportedly sold over millions of copies through the years.

Sudarshan Purohit, an architect with payment gateway company, who had some experience with translation work and translated the two Pathak novels, The 65 Lakh Heist (2009) and Daylight Robbery (2010), says, "I have zeroed in on a few other Hindi crime fiction titles and am trying to secure their rights, so I can translate them. Globally, crime fiction works are doing phenomenally well. We have a treasure trove of those ourselves, but they are in languages other than English."

According to Purohit, writing crime fiction is no easy task, as the writing needs to be pacy with a good set up (for a crime), and a credible, if not incredible, ending. He, however, had an additional challenge to contend with. "Pathak's works have a lot of different dialects and languages, depending on the character, and many of them don't have easy English translations. So I had to let a Sardar character in the book go 'Balle! Balle!" instead of a 'Wow!' because it just wouldn't do. However, I couldn't let 'Apne muh, mian mithu' be. I replaced it with a phrase closest in meaning -- 'You are so full of yourself'."

While crime fiction has always been considered a lesser cousin of other 'more literary' genres, O'Yeah points out that this necessarily isn't the case. According to him, a good detective novel apart from being "timepass", usually "takes up various problems and conflicts in our world and discusses these in an interesting and accessible way."

In the recently released anthology of noir writings titled Mumbai Noir, one of the stories called A Suitable Girl, written by Annie Zaidi, tries to look into the idea of a fringe society. "I wanted to write about a fringe society like Mira Road, a place where the same rules don't apply (compared to Mumbai). I wanted to talk about the privileges of geography and differences in the way people think. Most people, say in other more affluent parts of Mumbai, just have ideas about places like Mira Road that they occasionally read about in newspapers," she says.

The story has two points of view, one of a girl who moves from Juhu to Mira Road trying to create her own space and property and the other of a local individual who stalks the girl. Mumbai Noir's stories on the other hand, break from the classic tradition of noir writings. There are no anti-heroes, no femme fatales, and often not even detectives. Some of the stories are that of a vegetarian housing society, while another talks of a terrorism case underway in a court. Each story is set in different Mumbai locations, as diverse as Apollo Bunder and Kamathipura. When this reporter contacted Jain, and asked her whether she would try another genre, now that she already has two crime fiction novels under her belt, she answered, "I'm almost through with my next two books. Both are sequels (of the earlier two books) and both are crime fiction."

Did you know?
The earliest crime novel
The earliest known crime novel is The Rector of Veilbye by Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, published in 1829. Better known are the earlier dark works of Edgar Allan Poe, like The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget  (1842), and The Purloined Letter (1844). French author mile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (1868), laid the groundwork for the methodical, scientifically-minded detective. The evolution of locked room mysteries was one of the landmarks in the history of crime fiction. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle are said to have been singularly responsible for the huge popularity of this genre.

Five questions for
Zac O'Yeah, Literary columnist and author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, whose next detective novel Mr. Majestic! will be published later this year

Is there finally an Indian crime fiction 'scene' in English?
There have always been good Indian detective novels around. Some of the greatest Indian English novels have been crime or detective novels, like Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome and Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, both worthy of the Nobel Prize but also, significantly enough, great mystery plots. But the last five years have seen an emergence of genre fiction in English in India on a very different scale -- first there was lad-lit, chick-lit and all that, and now some newer writers have diversified into crime fiction. It always takes a few decades before one can speak of a "tradition", so we'll have to wait and see if this is just a fad or a phenomenon that has come to stay.

What do you think is the reason behind this trend?
With a larger number of publishing houses competing on the market, they will have to diversify. A healthy literary market place would have to cater to all tastes, and so the readers who may have got fed up with Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes surely must be welcoming detective stories with Indian settings and themes. I suppose also that some Indian publishers and writers have noticed the fact that the Scandinavian publishing industry has got a great boost from crime writing: it is exported internationally, it promotes reading habits among Scandinavians, etc. Maybe the same thing will happen in India next?

What purpose does a good crime fiction novel serve -- a simple 'time-pass' read or can it be a mirror to society, capable of reflecting differences and conflicts within it?
The genius of a good detective novel is that A) it is fabulous timepass when you're waiting for a flight and mustn't fall asleep; B) if it has a good mystery element, it is a healthy brain exercise that prevents you from getting Alzheimer's; C) it usually does take up various problems and conflicts in our world and discusses these in an interesting and accessible way; D) and sometimes it also has a psychotherapeutical or cathartic effect if it addresses the worries of common people about rising crime in cities or whatever people might be bothered by.

There is, however, a fair amount of genre blending and mixing happening here.
I don't think it is healthy to stick very strictly to traditions, one must keep adapting, so every country must develop its own unique form of detective literature, and if it should happen that in India both writers and readers prefer cozy chick-lit type of mystery novels, then that is a kind of sign showing which way "the tradition" might be heading. Maybe the very gritty American type of crime fiction doesn't work as well in India, for whatever reasons, and people prefer light and humorous crime novels. If that is the case, then it is an organic development and it may produce some quite interesting books in the long run. The only tradition a writer should never deviate from is the rule that says that a crime novel must have some crime as a starting point, a suspenseful puzzle of some sort in the middle, and a "wow!" type of resolution in the end.

You wrote different kinds of books, before switching to crime fiction.
I've always wanted to write detective novels, ever since I was a child. But earlier there was something shameful about writing that sort of bestselling stuff and people wouldn't take you seriously. So I strayed into all sorts of more "serious" things. Also one needs to come up with a grand idea: especially in the West there are already so many crime writers that the competition is really cut-throat (well, almost), and there's no point starting out by copying the other writers and writing the same kind of stuff. With Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, I seem to have hit upon a great concept about a semi-futuristic history-reversal plot, which turned it into a bestseller and a good starting point for a career as a crime novelist.

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