Meghnad Desai spins debut whodunit

His debut novel, a political thriller, Dead on Time, which was released at the London Book Fair in April, was formally unveiled in India at the British Council on Thursday evening, by Harper Collins-India.

books Updated: May 15, 2009 13:17 IST

Leading economist and member of Britain's House of Lords Meghnad Desai has been reborn - as a thriller writer and a novelist.

His debut novel, a political thriller, Dead on Time, which was released at the London Book Fair in April, was formally unveiled in India at the British Council in a star-studded ceremony on Thursday evening. It is published by Harper Collins-India.

"It has been a most challenging thing to do. But my book has a lot of excitement, action, violence, sex and realpolitik. Altogether it will make a good story," the genial economist told IANS.

"I wrote the book for the fun of it. I have failed in everything and so I wanted to fail as a thriller novelist," Desai bantered with a laugh.

The book, a fictitious take on British politics with shades of many real life characters, spins a racy whodunit around Harry White, Britain's charismatic and politically-savvy prime minister.

The story begins on a busy day at 10, Downing Street. Harry White has a "peremptory invitation to lunch with the megalomaniac media lord Matt Drummond, a parliamentary rebellion to be battled away and an urgent call from the White House about a crisis in the Middle East. Until finally, Harry and his entourage are ready to fly to Glasgow for the last item on their schedule: the Old Firm game between Rangers and Celtic, the traditional Scottish rivals.

It is a game that Harry has little interest in, but there are two men who have been plotting vendetta for a long time.

"The biggest challenge was to make it interesting for audiences in India and other countries outside Britain who know nothing about British politics. My ambition was to write an airport novel. I did not want to write a Booker prize winning novel - something which every Indian novelist aspires for. There were no colonial stories and no empires," said Desai, who has watched life at very close quarters in the Palace of Westminster for the last 19 years.

He said he wanted to put his friends in the novel, but in a sufficiently disguised way so that no one sued him for libel.

"It has been inspired by real-life politicians like Tony Blair, John Major and Cherie Blair. I have used all their characters. The advantage of being in the House of Lords is that you have colleagues like Ruth Rendell, who read and re-read the drafts and offered me lots of advice," he said.

The idea, he said, came to him in a "political convention soon after the 1997 Labour Party's landslide victory".

"Some people were so angry that they said why don't you shoot the prime minister. I went home and thought about it. The only British prime minister to have been assassinated was Spencer Perceval (in May 1812). I thought how can you assassinate the prime minister. It was like a Sudoku and I was hooked. But I did not want to make a Bollywood movie - my book had to be substantial," said Desai.

The economist has also written a book on the life of Bollywood thespian Dilip Kumar, "Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India" (2004).

Desai does not want to write about Indian politics just now. "I don't know much about Indian politics. Let them nominate me to the Rajya Sabha, first. But a book on Indian culture and unity, 'Rediscovery of India' (to be published by Penguin Books-India), will be ready to hit the stores in September. It is a book about how India has managed to stay united despite the disparate forces at work," he laughed.

Desai has written books on a variety of subjects like economics, Marxism, Islamist terrorism, Ezra Pound and Bollywood.

First Published: May 15, 2009 12:51 IST