Sunday, June 21, 2015

Making Crime Pay

A truncated version of the story appeared in the 21 July 2015 edition of Sakaal Times, the English daily published from Pune, India. You can check out the story @


Suddenly crime writing has become the ‘it’ genre in Indian writing in English. Dibyajyoti Sarma explores the whys and hows

Crime has always been a part of our lives. Open a daily and the first thing you notice are the crime stories. Thus, it is not surprising that writers should tackle crime in their works. What is surprising, however, is that Indian writers, especially in English, did not actually tackle the subject until recently. And suddenly, (perhaps S Hussain Zaidi’s books on Mumbai gangsters, starting with ‘Black Friday’ was a starting point), in the last four-five years, there has been an avalanche of crime writing in India. There are the bestselling authors like Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian, Kalpana Swaminathan, Zac O’Yeah, Tarquin Hall, Mukul Deva, and Pune’s very own, Salil Desai. There are publishers like Westland, Fingerprint, Amaryllis dedicated to crime writing. Early this year, there was also an event, Crime Writers Festival, in Delhi, on January 17 and 18.

What gives? Why is this sudden fascination for crime writing in English? “Crime fiction has always had readers,” says Delhi-based international publishing consultant Jaya Bhattacharji Rose. “Indian writers are slowly coming into their own with this genre. So, there is a coming together of events that make it possible for publishers to commission crime stories and have a ready market too.”

Author Jerry Pinto agrees that the publishers have a major role to play. “I think the increase in crime writing has something to do with how many more publishers there are and how much risk they are willing to take. I think the number of publishers is directly related to the large number of writers and books,” he argues.

Author Mahendra Jakhar, whose debut novel is already a bestseller, believes India’s interest in crime fiction has to do with how the young Indian readers are exposed to western crime writing. “The growth is due to the increase in readership and the readers looking for diverse and engaging stories. Suddenly, the youth is exposed to diverse forms of media, and they are more than hungry for Indian stories that connect to them,” he argues.

This is the reason why in his novel, The Butcher of Benares, he brought in the elements of mythology, Hindu symbols, Vedic astrology and astronomy, Naga Sadhus and Aghoris, along with the history of 1857, to make it an authentic Indian mystery.

This does not mean what India crime fiction is a new, nascent genre. It is not. While the classic crime fiction found its niche in the western world in the years between the two world wars, with the publication of those pulp magazines and cheap paperbacks (with writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Hadley Chase, and Erle Stanley Gardner), Indian writers too, especially in the local languages, had dabbled with the genre. In Urdu, Ibn-e-Safi, who created the inimitable detective Imran, continues to be a publishing phenomenon. Again, we all know about Bangla detectives Byomkesh Baskhi and Feluda.

However, aside from a few stray examples like Kalpana Swaminathan and S Hussain Zaidi in the recent years, there was no visible genre writing in English.

What changed? Author Salil Desai believes the recent development is the fallout of the success of Chetan Bhagat. It made young Indian readers seek out stories they can relate to, stories that are not necessary literary, but which speak to them.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose does not completely agree. “I am not sure if you can compare the two kinds of Indian writing in English. These are two very distinct genres and readership. The only points of similarity are probably both rely heavily upon conversations to move the plot forward,” she says.

Bhattacharji Rose also refuses to distinguish between literary writing and pulp writing. There is no comparison, she says, “except for the immense satisfaction they give to the readers. You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate literary fiction and crime fiction. Also, crime fiction is not pulp fiction, at least not always to my mind.”

Yet, there are great crime writings, which are genre unto themselves. Jakhar argues, as he mentions Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the works of Ian Rankin, and also, works of Shakespeare and Dickens.

Jerry Pinto does not like to think in categories. “I think of books as either good or bad. So there are some literary books which should be called pulp and some genre fiction books which are well-written and then there are the classics that brook no question,” he says.

Media professional Sapna Sarfare, an avid reader of crime fiction, says the reason she is attracted to this genre is simple excitement. “The thrill and twists and turns found are incomparable. Life usually is not filled with the same devilish craziness found here,” she says.

On Indian crime fiction, she feels we are still not digging into the serious crimes. “Abroad, crime fiction delves deeper into human psyche. For example, Ian Rankin’s Detective Rebus, who is a complex character you can connect to. We are still on the ‘whodunit’ formula. I think we have a scope to explore further,” she says.
True. The locale, where the crime takes place, plays an important role in crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes is nothing without London. The same way, Kalpana Swaminathan’s Tamil heroine, Lalli, lives in Mumbai, so does Jerry Pinto’s characters (in Murder in Mahim). Zac O’Yeah makes downtown Bangalore his playing field, while in Tarquin Hall’s stories, crime takes place in Delhi.

This is the reason why Pune-based author Salil Desai cannot imagine his stories without the city in the backdrop. “Pune has a particular kind of atmosphere,” he says, “It is a big city, yet it has a small town vive, where tradition and modernity coexist. It is ideal for my kind of a murder story.”

Pune indeed has its fare share of murder. Desai mentions the Joshi-Abhyankar case. “I found the city perfect for the kind of police procedures I wanted to write. The way my lead character, the inspector, speak, is essentially Puneri,” he adds, “For a good crime fiction, you should know the lanes and bylanes of the city. I know the city very well and it helps me in my work.”

What the future holds? Will India ever produce bestselling writers like, say, Ian Rankin? Jaya Bhattacharji Rose has the last word. “I see no reason why not? Give this space some time to mature in India and you will notice a notable difference in the tenor of writing.”

Quick takes/

Jerry Pinto

Are you a crime writer?
“I don’t think of my writing in genres. Altaf Tyrewalla was editing Mumbai Noir and asked me if I would write a story for it and the first of the Murder in Mahim stories started there. The second was written for my friend Gauri Vij when she was editing Time Out. And then, Ravi Singh, my editor and publisher at Speaking Tiger suggested I work on a book. To be a crime writer, it takes pretty much the same thing it takes to be any kind of writer: the desire to do a lot of hard work for very little financial reward and simply for the joy of having some stranger come up to you and say, ‘That was a good one. Looking forward to your next’.”

Mahendra Jakhar

Being a writer
I started as a crime reporter with The Times of India in New Delhi. I worked there for almost six years but the world of reporting bored me. I wanted to tell stories and use my imagination. I started to write stories and finally shifted to Mumbai. I wrote film scripts for Mahesh Bhatt, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Hansal Mehta and wrote various TV shows. Still, there was an urge to tell bigger stories that did not fit into the prescribed structure of movies and TV shows. So, I turned to writing novels.

Finding a publisher
I had no clue about the world of publishing. I started my search on the net. I found Red Ink Literary Agency, who signed me and agreed to represent me. We sent out the manuscript of The Butcher of Benares to various publishers and a few refused and a few loved it. Finally, we decided to go ahead with Westland. The book got a tremendous response and has sold out the entire first edition. The reviews included both bouquets and brickbats but I’m happy with it.

Being a crime writer?
Crime writing is both an art and a craft. So, first one needs to have an idea, a plot, and characters. Then comes the craft to structure and design it. The biggest challenge is that so much have already been written all around the world that it is not easy to come up with something that is original.

Salil Desai

Starting early
I have been writing short stories for a long time. When I started working on my novel, it naturally became a crime novel, as I was very fond of crime writers like Conan Doyle, Christie and Chase, and also Randel and Rankin. When I started writing in 2008-09, I was ahead of this wave. My first book, The Body in the Back Seat came in 2011. Around this time, the trend of crime writing started. I was one of the first writers.

Indian crime writing
While influenced by the western crime writing, I believe Indian authors have found their own voices. They have developed their own nuances and have created a sense of Indian authenticity. I believe in a few years time, there will be a whole new generation who will read only ‘Indian crime novels.’

Sonia Raikkonen
My new book, The Murder of Sonia Raikkonen, featuring Inspector Saralkar, is about the murder of a Finnish tourist in Pune. As the story progresses, the mystery becomes a ‘why-dun-it’ instead of the regular ‘whodunit.’

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