Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Crime Fiction in India

Why don’t we have good crime fiction writers in India?

1. We do not have good crime fiction in India because good writers rarely attempt to write crime fiction. This has to do with the fact the crime fiction has the reputation being not highbrow and serious. Even in the Western literary tradition, crime fiction as a literary genre came into existence very late. Crime fiction started its life in cheap magazines, rags, as they were called, unlike highbrow literary magazines. Then they were published in cheap yellow papers, unlike white papers where literary books were published. It was considered that the goal of crime fiction is just to thrill, writer do not care about the literary nuances, the language or character development and such. Therefore, a writer who wants to be a ‘writer’ in the traditional sense tends to avoid crime fiction.

2. In India, blame it on Kathapura. Since its publication, the Raja Rao novel has become a hallmark of what Indian novel in English should look like. In this context, though there have been short story writers, Indian writing in English since Independence has mostly been about novels. Since Kanthapura, Indian English novels have been inspired by the nationalistic movement. The thematic concern of the Great Indian novel, since Raja Rao’s ‘The Serpent and the Rope’ has been the English-educated middle call men struggling to make sense his world in the context of a new nation and his place with the changing socio-political, economic times. The idea here was to reach out to the intellect than to be frivolous. The idea was that the novel should make sense to the live lived, not just entertain. Hence, the emerging authors of Indian English literature sough to comment on the reality. Crime fiction as we know it wasn’t in the purview of this reality.

3. Another reason is unlike regional language writers, Indian English writers have a wider audience and they must try and accommodate everyone. Therefore, they must choose themes are that universal, which can be identified by everyone.

4. Even in the Western literary tradition, crime fiction is often considered just entertainment, not serious. We can take the cue from British novelist Graham Greene. Greene wrote two types of fiction – serious ones like ‘The Heart of the Matter’ and crime novels, which he called entertainments, like ‘The Third Man. Indian English writers, on the other hand, had no time for novels as entertainments.

5. In every literary tradition, crime fiction is a natural progression. It finds its place over time, but never at the beginning. Even in case of British literature, crime fiction as a genre begun to emerge more than 100 years after the great novel tradition of 18th Century enlightenment. And it took another 100 years before crime fiction as a genre was established. Going by this logic, there’s still time for crime fiction in Indian writing in English. In the recent years, there has been a surge of crime fiction in Indian English writing, with authors like Kalpana Swaminathan and Vikram Chandra dabbling in the genre, coupled with the English translations of regional crime writings, like Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories.

6. Ironically, in the regional writing, crime fiction as a genre has flourished since before independence. These writers were inspired by the classics like Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe and contemporaries like Ian Flemming, James Hedley Chase, Perry Mason and Raymond Chandler. There was two reasons of this success of regional crime writing – thriving regional language monthly magazines and a middle-class reading public (not necessarily English educated) clamouring for entertainment. Indian writing in English missed out on this as both the readers and the writers wanted to be ‘highbrow’ and wanted to tackle themes that are more serious.

7. Crime fiction needs a special environment, including stock characters like gangsters, private detectives and femme fatales. It mostly involves rich people in idle pursuit. Another ingredient of crime fiction is all-pervading cynicism. Post-Independent India, an emerging nation with optimism for future had no time cynicism. It also had no time for idle pursuit. There were other existential issues to be tackled, like how to live.

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