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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

Plenty of fodder for crime writing in India

his is a time of year when many literary events – launches, festivals, random jitterbugging – take place, and two of the more atypical things that happened in the past week coincidentally involved writers who have been unable to come to India because of visa problems. Just a couple of days ago, at the ceremony for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, the 78-year-old Pakistani writer Jamil Ahmad spoke with a Delhi audience on Skype from his home in Islamabad. And on a more personal note, at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, I found myself filling in for the absent novelist Kjell Eriksson in a session titled "Why Swedish Crime Fiction?" Years of watching Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman films has proved very useful; people came up to me later to say that my Scandinavian accent was masterful.

Okay, that last bit was a joke. But I was a substitute panelist on that session, which took the form of a free-flowing conversation with the redoubtable Zac O'Yeah, author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan– a detective story set in a just-about-fictional universe where the European Union has been colonised by India and murders occur in restaurants named Tandoori Moose. Zac spoke interestingly and amusingly about the "cottage industry" of crime writing in Sweden – something that has gone back at least as far as the late 19th century, when writers began doing local spinoffs of Sherlock Holmes. In more recent decades, the Martin Beck books – which in themselves were relatively understated police procedurals – created a template for more dramatic crime writing. "Everybody thought hey, this is really easy," said Zac, "You just need to take any small town in Sweden, put a serial killer and a cop there, and presto, soon you'll be a rich man. Today any little town in Sweden with a population of more than 20 or 30 people will have its own detective novel series."

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“No one expects crimes here to be solved or even investigated properly, so there isn’t much context for homegrown detectives or police procedurals.”

We spoke about the sub-categories that exist under the broad head "crime writing" – suspense and noir among them – as well as the tendency of writers to follow formulas and to carefully tread the paths followed by earlier writers who were successful. One can speak of this as a genre tradition, Zac said, but it is also a very self-referencing form of literature. His own book was possibly an attempt to re-imagine the genre by mixing the well-worn tropes of crime writing with speculative fiction and even slapstick comedy.

Later I spoke with the writer Mridula Garg, who had a theory – a cynical one – about why we don't have too much crime writing in India. "No one expects crimes here to be solved or even investigated properly," she said, "so there isn't much context for homegrown detectives or police procedurals." I think this is changing though. The past two or three years have seen the publication of Kalpana Swaminathan's fine Inspector Lalli series, as well as enjoyable novels like Madhulika Liddle's The Englishman's Cameo, about a murder investigation during the Mughal Era, and Aditya Sudarshan's A Nice Quiet Holiday. But I think there is some scope for narrative non-fiction crime writing too, along the lines of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables included a riveting chapter on the famous Nanavati killing of 1959, while this month saw the launch of Meenal Baghel's skillfully crafted Death in Mumbai, an account of the real-life Neeraj Grover murder. Aspiring crime writers in India are unlikely to run out of material anytime soon.

Let Skype Fest begin

It was a little unsettling at first to see Jamil Ahmad – winner of the Shakti Bhatt prize for The Wandering Falcon – gazing out at us from the large screen in the British Council auditorium, but his Skype conversation with critic Nilanjana S. Roy proceeded quite smoothly. I thought there was something especially poignant about this interaction via new technology, given that Ahmad had completed the first draft of his manuscript in 1973, when he was posted in the hostile and inaccessible desert areas of Pakistan. In that time and place, the very idea of a video conversation of this sort would have been firmly in the realm of science fiction. It makes me wonder if the next big literary festival might be conducted exclusively on Skype!

 
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