A conversation with Tarquin Hall, author of The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing and The Case of the Missing Servant
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 colorful 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 meaningwhat 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'.
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.
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
In a 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 laborers, 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.
In your debut of the series The Case of the Missing Servant, readers see the inner workings of India's class system, in your second book The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, you take readers behind the scenes into India's guru culture. What made you want to write about this subculture of Indian society?
Many people in the West seem to have got the impression that India is shedding its values and traditions now that it's economy is booming. And it's true that all the new wealth, office jobs and shopping malls are altering the fabric of life in the major cities and towns. But the past ten years has seen a massive Hindu revival. The coffers of godmen, gurus and ashrams are swollen with contributions from the growing middle classes. Unlike their counterparts in the West, software developers and call centre workers are flocking to temples more than ever. They spend lavishly on ceremonies everything from weddings to having their new cars blessed by priests and consult with astrologers. At the same time, the message from the Hindu 'church' has altered. Wealth creation and ostentation are being condoned. As well as spiritual guidance, gurus now offer self-help-style advice on how to deal with stress at work and how to stop your children from becoming addicted to computer games. In this second book, I wanted to reflect this trend and to get across the fact that Indian remains a deeply religious and superstitious society.
The streets of Delhi really come alive in the book, especially in regards to your descriptions of the Indian street food that Puri is often found eating. Was the focus on Indian cuisine intentional?
Indians love their food and rightfully: it's delicious! But I doubt any Indian people love their food quite as much as the Punjabis. Given that, it would be impossible to write about a Punjabi man like Vish Puri without making him a foodie. Not that he tends to go to five star restaurants of course. He is more at home eating at dhabas on the street, which offer a very distinct kind of cuisine not served in people's homes dishes like papri chaat and gol gaapa. I have a friend who knows all the best places in Delhi and he's taken me to quite a few over the years. Some of them are famous across the country and people come from miles to eat at them.
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?
I'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, humor, 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.
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 the first two books you refer to some of Puri's earlier investigative triumphs, but what can readers expect from him in the future?
Mentioning earlier cases is something Conan Doyle did in Sherlock Holmes so I guess I've borrowed that from him. It's fun to make references to the past; it gives the world I've created a sense of continuity. But, yes, at some stage soon, perhaps in book four, I'm planning to do a 'prequel', one of Vish Puri's earlier investigations. Perhaps 'The Case of the Stolen Polo Elephant'? The only thing is I'll have to figure out the plot first!