Sometime in 1986 or 1987, I got to know that the celebrated British crime fiction writer HRF ‘Harry’ Keating was in Bombay.
I called him for an interview and he promptly invited me to come over for a cup of tea. Just like that. No sending questions in advance, no handlers, no PR girls who make you jump through hoops.
If he was a celebrity author, he certainly showed no signs of it. We chatted amiably and he spoke of his early days in The Daily Telegraph where he was a sub-editor. He happily answered questions that he had been asked often before. How had he written no less than nine Inspector Ghote novels set in Bombay without ever visiting the city? How had he got so many details right? Did he, as the rumour went, have a contact in the Bombay police who helped him with the minutae of police procedurals?
His initial attempts to sell his first few novels to American publishers had failed, he said. They had wanted a detective in an unusual setting, a gumshoe who would have recall value and if the first novel was successful, there could be a series in it. Keating thumbed through an atlas and when he came across India, felt it sounded exotic enough and decided to set his stories there. The detective he created — Inspector Ganesh V Ghote — was not a colourful character in the Holmes mould but had his interesting points. He is a Maharashtrian officer on the Bombay police force, a bit straight-laced and uptight but very strict about following the rules.
But how did he manage to portray Bombay and its police system? He was a bit vague about the details and did not admit to any help from an Indian cop, merely saying he had read up on the city in various old books. Years later, I got to know that a British advertising man who had worked in Bombay in the 1950s and 1960s had given him some colour and insight into the city that Keating had incorporated into his works.
After our formal interview, Keating said he had a small favour to ask. Would I accompany him on a walkabout of the city? And also, could I help him get into the Bombay stock exchange building? Rajiv Gandhi’s economic policies had created the ‘equity cult’ and the stock market was very much a buzzword in the emerging India. Keating must have read about how middle-class investors were putting their money into the markets and wanted it for a possible backdrop for his next book, I thought.
I arranged for him to get an official tour of the imposing 29-storeyed skyscraper and a meeting with the exchange president, an elderly gent who only wore traditional khadi dhoti and kurta and a black Gandhi cap. I had a vision of an Inspector Ghote mystery in which a broker was pushed off the building to make it look like a suicide, but Keating kept his views to himself.
We then strolled through the Kala Ghoda district and I gave him a potted history of the Victorian buildings. He did not take any notes. After another cup of tea we dispersed, but not before I got him to sign a book for me.
A year or two later, in 1988, Merchant Ivory produced The Perfect Murder, with a splendid performance as Ghote by Naseeruddin Shah. It was slickly directed by the ad-film maker Zafar Hai and had a terrific supporting cast — Amjad Khan, Ratna Shah and Stellan Skarsgaar — but sank at the box office. The stilted English by the Indian characters did not help.
Intriguingly, the Ghote novels too slowly disappeared from Indian bookshelves. Indian lovers of gumshoe fiction did not take to Ghote in the same way as they had to British and American detectives. Perhaps they found him bland or too familiar or maybe they felt that he was too far-fetched, given their own perceptions of the Indian police. Keating’s stories were pleasant enough and the mysteries fairly compelling, but his use of ‘Indian English’ was now getting a bit outdated.
Last year, I wrote to Keating, informing him that his books were now difficult to obtain in India. His last book A Small Case for Inspector Ghote? did not make it to Indian bookshops. He wrote back saying he would mention it to his publishers. I have checked a few shops over the last few days. They have not heard of the book or the author. Surely this is a case for Inspector Ghote to solve.
Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist