Books set in India – Secrets from the creator of Vish Puri

Books set in India - The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin HallIf you like a touch of culture and a shovel full of humor alongside your detective fiction, then you might want to consider a little trip to India, in the company of Punjabi detective Vish Puri.

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?

What are the top three must-dos for people travelling to Delhi? 
Humayun's Tomb - image courtesy of Samir Luther via Wikimedia Commons

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!

Image courtesy of Ekabhishek via Wikimedia Commons

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!

Suzi

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