On a misty January afternoon, in a café at the India Habitat Centre, not far from where Vish Puri, his fictional Punjabi super-sleuth has his Khan Market office, novelist Tarquin Hall quaffs at a long, black Americano. "I can’t keep my eyes open. I’ve been writing the whole day," declares the 45-year-old author, whose books place Puri, a 50-something Punjabi Poirot of sorts, into the maze that is Delhi.
In glutton country
A sub-plot running across all of Hall’s books is plate-loads of pakoras, biryani, street food and other gluttonous dishes that Puri loves digging into. Puri’s proclivity for solving complicated cases is matched only by his penchant for gulping down whole chilli peppers with masala chai.
The books even feature recipes at the end of the whodunit. “Punjabis love their food. At every get-together, there’s something sugary, salty and delicious to be had. Vish, nicknamed Chubby, wants to eat whenever he reaches a dead end. So, I play that up. There is a certain amount of humour involved in him being a glutton.”
Unlike Puri, Hall is not half as adventurous when it comes to street food. “I love Indian food but I am not terribly fond of street food. Golgappas are an acquired taste. My wife on the other hand, can’t eat enough of them.”
Ask him about his approach to writing and Hall invokes novelist Stephen King. “He tells you to write about what you know. I don’t know Calcutta. I don’t know Maharashtra either. While writing fiction, you suddenly realise you have stuff stored up, like a squirrel stores it and you can use it, which is delightful.”
His work has elicited praise from celebrated author Alexander McCall Smith, creator of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but Hall says he isn’t an avid consumer of crime fiction. “The crime fiction I really like gives you a great flavour of the place,” he says.
“For instance, the Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, created by Andrea Camilleri. But I can’t understand why people would sit around reading about serial killers carving each other out. The Silence Of The Lambs is a brilliant book. But I don’t really want to read anything more about what goes in Hannibal Lecter’s mind. There’s not much to learn from that.”
As far as he is concerned, Hall is writing for a Western audience that doesn’t know India. “I am not interested in writing detective fiction where the detective occupies the same space every time, say, like a Perry Mason procedural, where Mason sits in his office every time. India to me is this huge gift of material. It is such a varied, extraordinarily fascinating place.”
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From HT Brunch, January 25, 2015
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