If you haven’t yet discovered this dapperly-dressed pakora-loving private investigator solving crimes such as The Case of the Missing Servant and The Case of the Man who Died Laughing, then you are in for a treat.
But who better to tell us a little more about Vish “Chubby” Puri and his life in Delhi than his creator, author Tarquin Hall. He also has some unusual suggestions for places you could visit on your next trip to India…
Tarquin, what inspired you to set a series of novels in India?
The book came about after I was talking to one of my wife’s cousins in Delhi a few years ago. Her parents were trying to get her married off and she was telling me about how she had been investigated by a private investigator. Apparently this man had called up her work colleagues and asked them about her character: did she smoke, have a boyfriend, etc. He also asked one of them to bring her out into the street in front of her office so the parents of a prospective ‘boy’ could drive past and get a look at her. I guess they didn’t like what they saw because she’s still trying to find a match. But I decided to track down some Delhi detectives and write about them. I interviewed several and this culminated in a story for the Sunday Times in the UK. I was amazed by the types of cases they were dealing with: not only matrimonial (although these often offered fascinating insights into middle class culture), but murders, kidnappings, fraud. One detective described to me how he had even gone under cover in a nudist colony! Another showed me all his homemade bugs and talked about how he bribed employees at telecom companies to provide mobile phone records.
Did you always plan on doing a detective series, or is there something about India that encouraged you to go down that path?
I never planned to write detective fiction. My main interest was in writing about modern India and I decided that a private investigator would be a good way to describe it. I’m hoping that Vish Puri’s adventures will help Western readers better understand this place. Many of them are familiar with the India of the Raj and Mughal periods, but they don’t really understand or know the country today.
What impression of India are you hoping people are left with when they read these novels?
Unless you happen to be a total dullard, I don’t think you could possibly write about India and not get across what an extraordinarily diverse, complex, multi-layered, mesmerising, surprising, challenging and at times bewildering place it can be! Anyone reading these books is going to get that in spades – and also be given a strong impression of how things are changing and then again how they’re not. One moment detective Vish Puri is in a luxury apartment complex or a shopping mall, the next he’s in a Delhi slum looking for India’s hereditary magicians. There’s this constant juxtaposition between the traditional and modern, the wealth and extreme poverty, the rationalism and the superstition/belief.
Do you intend for the novels to address any of the political/social issues in contemporary Indian society?
These are not dark books – the plots are not about gruesome murders set in filth-ridden slums. But the idea is to describe India today and to do so you inevitably illustrate the contradictions, the issues in society. Each book has a theme – the first is essentially about the middle classes and their servants and the rigid hierarchy that is still very much in evidence here; the second is about belief and the place of gurus in modern Indian society; the third, which I’m writing now, is essentially about the relationship between India and Pakistan and the history the two countries have shared since 1947. It’s all done with a light touch and the plots and sub-plots take you into a lot of different situations. So far I’ve steered clear of politics because it’s all so complicated, but I don’t shy from pointing out the corruption which colours everyday life at all levels.
What are the challenges of commenting on Indian society as an outsider, and how has that been received?
Indians can be very sensitive about outsiders analysing their country. I think they’ve had a belly full of Brits like me describing the place. But these books are tremendous fun, they’re full of humour, and so far – fingers crossed – I’ve had fantastic reviews in the Indian press and received lots and lots of extremely flattering emails and messages from Indian fans who say they love them. That’s been quite a relief!
How much time have you spent in India yourself?
About six years all in all. I’m living back here in New Delhi now with my wife, who was born in India but grew up in the US, and our little boy.
So what should we do on a trip to India?
Humayan’s Tomb is my favourite place in Delhi. It’s just a few paces from where I live. The architecture blows my mind – just exquisite. Second: the old walled city i.e. Old Delhi – you could explore the narrow, congested alleys and street forever. Third: Bhogal market – if you want to see the real Delhi without having to go far, this place is as dirty, crowded and noisy as it gets.
You will find everything for sale – from tandoor ovens to fighting kites – as well as groups of large Punjabi men sitting on the pavements playing teen patti. Not a tourist in sight.
Is there somewhere people can visit that is particularly related to the novel? Somewhere Vish Puri may frequent?
Oooh lots of places. His office is in Khan Market, a posh market in south Delhi that was quite sleepy in the mid-90s when I lived here and is now full of designer boutiques but where you can still get great kebabs as well. You’ll see girls in over-sized sunglasses and heels stumbling along the uneven pavements and, at the back, auto-rickshaw drivers elbowing their way into the cramped wine and liquor shop to buy their evening dose of ‘Double Dog’ whisky. Puri is to be found at the old British Gymkhana Club most evenings. But he lives in Gurgaon, one of Delhi’s burgeoning suburbs, which is all gated communities, plush apartment blocks, malls and glass office blocks. Quite a contrast to the Delhi of the Red Fort!
Kahn Market – Delhi
Image courtesy of Ekabhishek via Wikimedia Commons
And how about somewhere that is really off the beaten track? A hidden secret?
Shadipur Slum, which features in ‘The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing’ is where you’ll find Delhi’s magicians and street performers. At first you’ll think it’s any old slum and then suddenly you’ll come across a fire breather blowing flames from his mouth.
And what next for Vish Puri?
‘The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken’. The elderly father of a Pakistani international playing in the Indian Premier League cricket tournament drops dead at an after match dinner. At the same time Puri has to figure out why someone has shaved off and attempted to steal India’s longest moustache from its owner.
Thanks Tarquin! Having read a review copy of The Case of the Missing Servant, and starting now on The Case of the Man who Died Laughing…I can recommend the novels for anyone who is looking for something a little light and cheery to help them through their day. And I like to see that while Puri himself is obviously the hero, he is joined by some wonderful female characters who are more than able to give him a run for his money…not that he would ever admit that of course!
Time perhaps to delve into some books set in India and immerse yourself in the wonderful world of Vish Puri…all of which makes me fancy a curry right about now!
It’s thought that up to 25,000 may have died later from being exposed to the gas.
But while it may be 25 years since the disaster, people in the area are still dealing with the effects. Campaigners say toxins are still leaking into the groundwater, while the authorities say the area is safe. This anniversary is seeing marches by survivors and activists, and a number of other commemoration events.
Meaghan Delahunt’s novel ‘The Red Book‘ tells of an Australian photographer, Francoise, who travels to Bhopal 20 after the event. She is inspired to go there after seeing a photograph taken of a child at the time. There, she meets Naga, a Tibetan refugee who’s family died in the disaster, and Arkay, a Scottish monk who is struggling with addiction.
As she documents the effects of the disaster, her relationships with Naga and Arkay develop, and The Red Book gives us a glimpse into the impact of such an event on India and its people.
Here are some links to news stories about Bhopal
But to find out a little more of the human story behind the Bhopal disaster, why not read about it for yourself in The Red Book.
If you’d like to explore the country further, take a look at other books set in India we have discovered….
The building of the Taj Mahal is a fascinating tale which Ben Kingsley is about to explore in film – but you can get your hands on the story first…
A visit to the Taj Mahal is often cited as a highlight for anyone visiting India. But apart from being a magnificent construction, the Taj has the most romantic of stories behind it.
In 17th century Agra, the grief stricken Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan decided to build a fitting memorial to his dead wife Mumtaz Mahal. More than twenty years later and with the labor of 20,000 workers, ‘The Taj’ was built.
The story has so intrigued veteran actor Ben Kingsley, he has announced he will produce and act in a film to be called ‘Taj’ in 2010. Much respected in India after his 1982 biopic ‘Gandhi’, Kingsley describes the building as ‘an indelible monument to passion and love’.
But you don’t have to wait until the film is released to find out more about the story.
Timeri Murari’s Taj: A Story of Mughal India explores the love Shah Jahan had for his wife as well as the political struggle of the time. With so little known about Mumtaz Mahal, the detail of the love story is necessarily fictionalized, but it is surrounded by historical fact.
At the time of writing this post, customer reviews on Amazon consistently give the novel five stars, with some delighting in the extra insight it gave them before visiting the mausoleum itself.
A second novel, Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors tells the tale from the perspective of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter, Jahanara.
She recounts the story of her parent’s love, giving us a Mumtaz who is her husband’s political advisor and sometimes companion in battle. But before she dies while giving birth to her 14th child, Mumtaz passes on her many skills to her daughter, preparing her to pick up from where her mother left off.
This novel gives us another view of Shah Jahan’s grief and the political intrigue of his court. It contrasts the opulance of Jahana’s world with the poverty that surrounds it – but most importantly for anyone interested in the Taj Mahal, we get an inside look at the building of the mausoleum itself.
While there will no doubt be many interpretations of the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal, including that which will be given to us in Kingsley’s film – why not read one or both of these novels to bring this UNESCO World Heritage Site alive for you right now. What a difference it will make when you finally have the chance to visit the Taj Mahal itself.
Have you been to the Taj Mahal? What can you tell us about the love of Shah Jahan? Let us know in the comments….
Here are some links to articles about the film:
And if you’d like to discover more books set in India, take a journey to our main site…
The team at packabook