The Indian Noir

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Jugneeta Sudan

Hard-boiled detective fiction has its roots in pulp fiction. Pulp writers whose stories appeared in cheap paper magazines with glossy covers in the western world in the first half of 20th century (Edgar Rice Burroughs; Ray Bradbury; Jackie Collins; Ian Fleming; Erle Stanley Gardner; H P Lovecraft; Mario Puzo; Jacqueline Susann) made it into the list of bestsellers of crime and science fiction with changing times and technology. They are the inventors of the modern genres, such as, the western, the detective novel, the spy thriller, the science fiction, the horror, the legal thriller, the crime fiction and the erotic/romance novel.

They wrote fast paced, escapist, action-packed adventure, involving sensual femme fatales and mysterious thugs, corrupt police and bigger-than-life heroes in exotic places for popular culture i.e. the man in a tea stall, the housewife with six children, the students and others travelling in buses and trains. It was not aimed at the elite literati. The language was lucid and plain and sometimes also incorporated slangs and expletives. The low price of the pulp magazine, coupled with easy exciting entertainment contributed to the success of the medium. Along the way, it produced many iconic writers who transcended the genre by mastering basics of a pulsating page turning novel.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ skyrocketing appeal replaced the previous generation of writers followed by Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and then PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh. Decades later, they still reign supreme in India. But an ever thirsting hunt is on for a home-grown author to reclaim and take the genre of crime detective fiction to dizzying heights – to map the phenomenon once again, in our own country.

Experiments have ranged from Tagore’s Feluda series in Bangla, the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp fiction, to the flourishing market of Surender Mohan Pathaks, Ved Prakash Sharmas and Amit Khans sold at A H Wheelers stands at railway stations. A revolution in Hindi pulp fiction (begun in Meerut in 1960s) took the country on a cascading ride of the jasoosiupanyas. A crime world inhabited by rakish secret agents, dames, outlandish plots, heists and eyeball grabbing titles. They were the dons of the Hindi belt with 100 per cent stake in the book market. With 300 titles or more to each of their credit, their paperback books went in for a first print edition of a lakh. Some of their writings were also adapted to blockbuster Bollywood films. At the height of their booming markets with the advent of TV boom in the nineties, they lost their readership to soap-serials. Presently they only retain 15 per cent of the book publishing market. In spite of their staggering success in their heyday, their books were never hailed as bestsellers, neither were they interviewed on national print media till their books were translated into English by Sudarshan Purohit a few years back. He translated Surender Mohan Pathak’s success novels The 65 Lakh Heist and Daylight Robbery.

It is this fetish for English language (so-called Indian snobbery) which Chetan Bhagat very craftily cashed on to in his foray into the book world. He became an icon in a few years time, a feat which the Pathaks, and Sharmas aspired to, but could not achieve. Very quickly in his footsteps followed Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghavi.

But the palpable Indian crime thriller still languishes and the hunt is on to find the legendary writer/spy duo that can fill the shoes of a Christie/Poirot. Ashok Banker, one of the first Indian crime fiction novelists in English, says: “The detective figure is a largely western concept; a myth of supremacy featuring a white male figure, superior in strength and intellect to those around him, who will save the world or the day. A tradition inherited by the Americans from the British.”

But is it really an inherited genre? Chanakya’s Arthashastra greatly intrigues British-origin journalist and writer Tarquin Hall, living in New Delhi for the last couple of years. Married to an Indian, Hall is known for his books such as Salaam Brick Lane and The Elephant Graveyard. His detective novel series, set in Delhi, features a private detective Vish Puri who operates out of Khan Market. He says he did a report on real-life Indian detectives in Delhi. One of the detectives’ inspirations was Chanakya. “He was quite dismissive of British characters like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, because Indians have been spies for over 3000 years. It was all laid out by Chanakya in the Arthashastra. If you read that, it talks about how to be a spy, how to spy on your subjects, neighbours and which disguises to use, how to infiltrate households, that sort of thing. It’s amazing stuff.”

Ibn-e-Safi, the Urdu writer of undivided India, created the much admired Colonel Vinod, an exponent of suspense, mystery and adventure. His main works were the 125-book series Jasoos Dunya (The Spy World) and the 120-book Imran series. The first English translations of Ibn-e-Safi’s mystery novels began appearing in 2010, with The House of Fear from the Imraan Series, translated by Bilal Tanweer (he has been at GALF) and published by Random House India.

Kalpana Swaminathan’s inspector Lalli, and Mukul Deva (Man with the Nostradamus touch, and The God of all things) noted for his spy-military thrillers on terrorism and action, have predominantly made inroads into the genre. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games and Anita Nair’s Cut Like Wound, too have topped bestseller charts intermittently. Zac O’Yeah, author of crime novels and a detective fiction columnist for Mint Lounge, says: “There are cultural aspects that make India different; a certain complexity in society, the family system in India is tighter, stronger. Detectives have to think more of their personal honour than a typical Western private eye, who lives outside the system as a loner. An Indian detective is more connected to his or her clan and the larger social concerns of family life. Then, there is non-violence, a strong tradition, and a belief in karma: a detective cannot just shoot anybody just like that, or he or she might be reborn as a cockroach in his/her next life.”

The case of the crime detective thriller is out and the jury has still to come in about the legendary Indian writer /spy duo to top the genre’s bestselling charts!