‘De­tec­tive fic­tion is not taken se­ri­ously’

Tehelka - - FICTION - Tar­quin Hall

BRI­TISH writer Tar­quin Hall, 42, is the cre­ator of Vish Puri, a Delhi-based Pun­jabi de­tec­tive. He talks to JANANI GANESAN about his three­book se­ries, writ­ing about mod­ern In­dia, and pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors in Delhi.

What are the ori­gins of Vish Puri?

One day, I just won­dered, “You are an idiot, why don’t you write

a de­tec­tive novel set it in to­day’s Delhi.” I sat down with a note­book and the sec­ond name I wrote down was Vish Puri. I had no idea where the plot was headed. In Chap­ter 3, some­one shoots at Puri. I had no idea who was shoot­ing. I was sure I was not sup­posed to do it this way. I don’t start a book with a who­dun­nit. I start off say­ing I want to talk about the Harid­war pan­dits or the caste sys­tem.

Who is Vish Puri based on? He is a com­pos­ite. Most Pun­jabi men in their 50s, from that back­ground, are a bit pompous, a bit full of them­selves, charm­ing of­ten, street-wise. They like khana and the sound of their voice.

What put you on the path of de­tec­tive fic­tion? When I moved to Delhi, I wrote an ar­ti­cle about real de­tec­tives. One gets the im­pres­sion that (in the West) pri­vate de­tec­tives are fol­low­ing housewives and hus­bands. But here they are into ev­ery­thing. One of them told me how he went un­der­cover in a nude colony in Goa. One was in­ves­ti­gat­ing a woman who’d killed her hus­band. There is no reg­u­la­tory body to over­see de­tec­tives. Putting bugs in peo­ple’s houses and hir­ing peo­ple to in­fil­trate, that’s the kind of amaz­ing stuff they do.

Is it tough for a Bri­tish au­thor to set a de­tec­tive novel here? The cases that crop up here re­mind me a bit about Sher­lock Holmes in Vic­to­rian London. You sud­denly had a lot of peo­ple liv­ing in very small ar­eas, very in­dus­tri­alised and a lot of mi­grant pop­u­la­tion. There was a lot of un­usual crime. Delhi is sprawl­ing out in all di­rec­tions. If you’re an av­er­age per­son and your child dis­ap­pears, there is not a lot you can do. I wanted to write about In­dia to­day and present it to the rest of the world, the mid­dle-class In­dia.

What about In­dian readers? I was ter­ri­fied when it was sup­posed to be pub­lished in In­dia. I re­ally didn’t know what In­di­ans would make of it. Peo­ple are sen­si­tive and can take of­fence eas­ily. It is dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially when you are a for­eign au­thor pok­ing fun, it could back­fire. Not a lot of In­dian writ­ers use hu­mour. De­tec­tive fic­tion is not taken se­ri­ously here. It is not high­brow enough. But there is an aw­ful lot of de­tec­tive fic­tion in other In­dian lan­guages sim­i­lar to Bri­tain’s penny-dread­fuls.

How do you cap­ture de­tails of a place in your book? I spent a week in Su­rat where I learnt that the largest di­a­mond

‘One feels in the West, de­tec­tives fol­low housewives and hus­bands. Here they do ev­ery­thing’

pol­ish­ing and cut­ting in­dus­try ex­ists. And it is amaz­ing to look at hun­dreds and hun­dreds of guys sit­ting to­gether, cut­ting di­a­monds. The whole sys­tem of men trav­el­ling back and forth from Mum­bai and Su­rat, car­ry­ing di­a­monds in trains. Noth­ing like that ex­ists in the Western world any­more.

What de­tail from this evening would you put in your book? This food court is in­ter­est­ing. It has av­er­age In­dian food, ter­ri­ble Chi­nese and very bad pizza. It is funny to see who goes for what. I have never seen a for­eigner in there eat­ing pani puri.

The third in­stal­ment in the Vish Puri se­ries, The Case of the Deadly But­ter Chicken, will be re­leased in July in In­dia

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