20 September 2009

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

World-class fictional Indian detective
I suppose it’s indicative of The New India that we now have a truly world-class fictional detective.
And that his creator is British, has lived in Delhi for more than ten years, and has an Indian-American wife. The Case of the Missing Servant is funny and clever, but it’s also a fast-moving, gripping detective story. It’s set in a very believable India and the detective Vish Puri (being Punjabi and all) loves to boast about his achievements, lives on deep-fried food despite the despite the despairing entreaties of doctor and wife, has nicknames for his staff and family members (more Bombay tapori nicknames than Punjabi ones, actually), and is also very modern and “today”, being unusually socially conscious. Some of the dialogue is in Indian English but some unmistakably Brit and when I asked Tarquin Hall why, he replied, “The book is for a non-Indian audience so I didn't want to make it too dense, just give readers a feel for how people cut back and forth between languages and often add Hindi words to their English and vice versa. The only exception is Mummy who always has the same patter.”
The book jacket and style reminded me of Mma Ramotswe and the Botswana ladies detective series, and Tarquin Hall said, “I don't mind being compared to McCall Smith, but a couple of things. I had not read No. 1 Ladies books before I wrote this; it was only afterwards that my agent recommended the series. Secondly, I think they're similar in the sense that they have a certain light touch - neither are dark thrillers or typical Christie whodunnits. But India is a far more varied, complicated culture than Botswana and there's a lot more going on in my book. Lastly, I think it's a bit of a lazy comparison because detective 'cozies' are nothing new. British and American writers in the 1920s and 30s churned them out by the dozen. Many were sold in paperback on train stations in the same way they are in India today.”
When I mentioned how charmed I was with his name he replied, “My father named me Tarquin after reading Etruscan Places by DH Lawrence, about his travels in Etruria. It was the 60s and you could get away with naming your children with odd/unlikely names!”
I wrote about this book for Sunday Mid-day along with another enjoyable book A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint, solved by one Inspector Singh. Imagine – two world-class Indian detectives, each promising a trail of suspense to come – arrived on this world almost in the same instant.
Here’s a general Q&A from Tarquin Hall about this book - focussed more, I'm afraid, towards the international readers this book was actually written for:

What inspired you to begin a mystery series featuring a Delhi-based, Punjabi private investigator?
I was sitting in Delhi with one of my wife’s cousins whose parents were trying to find her a suitable partner for an arranged marriage and she started telling me about how she’d been investigated by a private detective. He had made enquiries about her at work. Was she a good girl? Did she have a boyfriend, smoke, drink? He even went so far as to ask one of her colleagues to bring her out into the street in front of the office on a pretence so that some prospective in-laws could drive past and get a look at her. Apparently, they weren’t impressed and her parents had to keep looking.
But I decided to find some Delhi detectives and interview them. Some of the city’s more colourful and accomplished private investigators readily talked to me. I was amazed by the diversity of their cases and their methodology, which often requires undercover work. One of them told me how he had once infiltrated a nudist colony in Goa. During another case he had to take on the alias of a Xerox toner smuggler. I wrote a piece for The Sunday Times (UK) and afterwards decided to write a novel. My wife is Punjabi and I have come to know her family well, plus I have a lot of Punjabi friends in Delhi, so my character had to be Punjabi. They’re boisterous, daring, funny people. They’re often described as the Texans of India.
Vish Puri’s name can have a secondary meaning—what is it?

His first name is Vishwas, which he shortens because Vish rhymes with ‘wish’. Together Vish and Puri can be taken to mean ‘granter of wishes’. Puri is also known as ‘Chubby’ to his family and friends. It’s very typical in Punjabi families for everyone to have nicknames. I know one family where the three grown brothers are known as ‘Happy’, ‘Lucky’ and ‘Lovely’.
What qualities would you say set Vish Puri apart from the countless other fictional detectives in the genre?

Unlike most detectives, Puri recognizes that he cannot work alone. This is because in India it is usually impossible to get a straight answer to virtually any question. So, although Puri masterminds his own investigations (and is not shy of boasting about his abilities), he often uses undercover operatives to get the information he needs. Facecream is one. A beautiful, feisty Nepali, she has many faces: one day she might be working as a household maid, the next as a sexy party girl. Flush is another. So-named because he was the first to have a flush toilet in his village, he is a whizz with electronics and computers. Another quality that adds to Puri’s originality is that he is religious, a practicing Hindu. After he is shot at in the first book, he goes to the temple to give thanks for his narrow escape. He is obviously discerning and a great believer in logic and deduction, but he does not dismiss the power of the Almighty and of Fate.
Puri dismisses Sherlock Holmes as a veritable upstart, claiming he stole many of his methods from an Indian named Chanakya. Who was Chanakya?

Chanakya lived in 300 BC and helped found the Mauryan Empire, India’s first centralized power. He was the world’s first spymaster and founded the art of espionage and intelligence gathering. In his great treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, Chanakya outlines how spies should go about their business and even recommends a range of disguises for various different situations: brothel keepers, storytellers, acrobats, cooks, shampooers, cowherds, monks, elephant handlers, thieves, snake catchers, hunchbacks, dwarfs and eunuchs to name but a few.
Why does Puri give all his staff such colorful nicknames: Facecream, Tubelight, Handbrake?
Puri likes to give everyone nicknames; it’s a very Punjabi habit. He calls his wife ‘Rumpi’ and the tea boy ‘Door Stop’. When it comes to his undercover operatives, like Facecream, he finds it prudent not to use their real names. They often find themselves in dangerous situations and their real identities are well kept secrets.
In a relatively short time, Puri’s hometown of Delhi has grown from a relatively small city to a sprawling urban monster with 16 million people. What caused this explosion?
Two things. One, the Indian economy has been growing rapidly in the past ten years and enormous new industrial, commercial and residential areas have been built mostly to the east and to the south of what’s been known for the past 60 years as South Delhi. We’re talking call centers, malls, enormous luxury apartment blocks. This in turn has attracted hundreds of thousands of labourers, servants, etc. Delhi is surrounded by farmland so conceivably it could go on growing in all directions. The figures are not accurate, but India’s National Capital Region is believed to be the second largest human conurbation on earth. Two, with so much investment going towards infrastructure in the cities, rural India has been falling further behind. States like Uttar Pradesh (the largest) are getting worse in terms of crime, poverty, education and health. Every day bring news of more farmer suicides. So many more Indians are heading for the cities in search of work.
You do a wonderful job in portraying the subtleties of the Indian society’s class system. Is that system buckling under the demands of modernism?
It’s a complicated situation. In some ways it’s changing, in other ways it’s not. It is now possible for a Dalit, an untouchable, to rise to the pinnacle of political power in India. But such politicians generally do so by using caste politics to their advantage. Essentially India remains an extremely hierarchical society. You get a real sense of it in most households. In most, the servants are not allowed to eat off the same plates. Recently I was talking to a very sweet and hard working maid who was telling me about how she works in a house where she is not allowed to use the toilet, eat without permission or talk to the other servants.
Reading The Case of the Missing Servant, one is struck by the juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient. Characters use cell phones, but still cling to superstitions about djinn. Would you say this is true about most modern Indians?
Yes because the same fundamental difference between East and West holds true. We believe (with few exceptions) that the intellect governs everything, that we are rulers of our own lives and destinies. Whereas in India, everyone bar the odd atheist believes that something higher, more powerful, greater perhaps, is running the show. It makes for a very different society. It’s also a difficult concept for Westerners – myself included – to get their heads around this seeming contradiction, precisely because of the way we think.
You are British, not Indian. How did you manage to obtain “insider knowledge” about so many different classes of Indians and the different ways in which they live?

I would never describe myself as an insider. As a white guy, I’m always going to stand out and be treated differently. As an outsider I tend to ask all the obvious questions. I also get teased a lot. But I’ve spent more than a decade in India and have a lot of friends. Getting to know my wife’s Indian family, whom I am very close to, has certainly helped see a side to life most outsiders never witness.
Many western readers “know” India from the novels of Paul Scott, E.M Forster, and other British observers from the waning years of the Empire. As a British writer yourself, do you think of yourself as a similar kind of outside observer, albeit of a different era?
m pleased to be writing about today’s India, without the rose-tinted glasses. I think we need to temper our impressions of the ‘Indi-aaaaaaah’ of Gandhi, ashrams and palaces with a more realistic view. I hope my books will help bring the complexity, humour, warmth and brutality of modern India to readers around the world. It’s a fascinating place, home to nearly a fifth of humanity and holds lessons for all of us.

How much time have you spent in India?

I lived in India full-time in the late 1990s for more than three years (and before that in Pakistan for the best part of two years). Since then, I have spent extended periods in India – five months in 2008. We’re planning to move back there again in 2010.

Why do you think there has been a recent explosion of interest in America over books about India or by Indian writers?
My wife is an Indian-American and I think the reason is that unlike Britain, which has so many historic links with the country, Americans are only just discovering India. The hundreds of thousands of Indian families who emigrated to the US in the 60s and 70s are now well-integrated into American society and I think there’s a much greater familiarity with the culture they brought with them, which fuels a greater curiosity. Plus, India’s booming economy is bringing all stripes of Americans into contact with Indians and India, and I think that also stokes the appetite to read more about the place and its people.
Throughout this debut novel you refer to some of Puri’s earlier investigative triumphs, but what can readers expect from him in the future?
The next book is called The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. We see Puri on the trail of a Godman, a big Guru, who is suspected of committing a murder. After that, I’m planning to write a collection of short mysteries starring both Puri and his Mummy-ji who is a budding detective and likes to stick her nose into his investigations. I’d like to go back into Puri’s past as well. In the first book I’ve mentioned The Case of the Missing Polo Elephant. It would be great fun to think up the story. How does a polo elephant go missing?

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