‘Detective fiction is not taken seriously’
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