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.
Beginning with The Case of the Missing Servant (2009), Hall has been churning out nicely plotted page turners that touch upon the themes of arranged marriages, cricket scams, caste and politics, served with dollops of humour emerging from the outlandish situations that the protagonist Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator and his operatives – Flush, Facecream and Tubelight – find themselves in.
A rather likeable trait in Vish Puri’s character is his admiration for Chanakya and the contemptuous disdain that he displays for India’s colonial past. "I like the fact that he sees Sherlock Holmes as a Johnny-come-lately. Which, in a way, he is.
As I put it in the first book, when the British were still in caves, painting themselves blue, Chanakya was busy founding the world’s first spy network. His treatise Arthashastra even has as a long list of recommendations for disguises and codes for covert investigations," says Hall.
The Britain-born journalist first spent some days in India 20 years ago. Since then, he says, he had always wanted to return. So, when Associated Press Television offered him a posting at either Beijing or New Delhi in the mid-’90s, he chose the latter.
Working with the television arm of a wire service meant Hall travelled extensively for four years. Not only did his India assignment bring him job satisfaction, it also helped him meet his future wife. "One day, Anu walked into our Jor Bagh office looking for a job, with a degree in television journalism. That’s how I met her."
Hall says he would have kept his connection with India anyhow. But the fact that he fell in love in Delhi and became a Punjabi son-in-law meant he would one day grow roots here. In a way, the extended Chopra family gave Hall the raw material to create Vish Puri, the safari-suit and Sandown cap wearing Punjabi detective.
"Vish is a composite character, an amalgam of various Punjabi men I’ve met over the years. A lot of the nuances of his character are drawn from my wife’s family. She comes from a staunch Punjabi family and her uncles are a lot like that. They like to talk about themselves and are very fond of their food and pegs. They can be pompous and status-conscious. But in the end, they are very decent."
One day, while chatting with one of his wife’s young cousins, Hall stumbled upon the phenomenon of matrimonial investigations. He found it hilarious that a boy’s family would assign detectives the task of verifying a girl’s ‘character’. They’d call up a girl’s office and ask her colleagues whether she smoked, or other such things. "I asked her if she had ever been investigated by detectives assigned by the family of prospective husbands. She said ‘yeah, several times’."
This led him to write an article for the London Sunday Times that featured Kunwar Vikram Singh and Ramesh Madan, who ran detective agencies in Delhi. "These guys were telling me about matrimonial investigations, kidnappings and undercover work," says Hall.
"But some of the stories were farfetched. One of the detectives told me how he’d gone undercover in a nudist colony in Goa. Now this guy was a big Punjabi man. I remember thinking, ‘Well, yeah, that doesn’t quite sound credible!’"
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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