Saturday, June 30, 2012

Murder they wrote

(My Piece published in the Hindu Literary Supplement today)

Indian writers dabbling with sleuth fiction have made a mark in the genre which distinguishes them from their English pioneers. Vijay Nair
Detective fiction aficionados are going to love this piece of trivia. The first sleuth fiction created belonged to one of the stories Scheherazade narrated with much aplomb in the Arabian Tales . Ja’far ibn Yahya was a reluctant detective. Ordered by his Caliph to find the murderer of a girl whose mutilated corpse was discovered in a locked trunk, Yahya was given all of three days to get results.

Failing which he faced the prospect of death himself. Needless to add, this particular slewfoot had neither love nor commitment for the vocation that was thrust on him. Thankfully the murderer felt the need to confess on his own and bailed Yahya out. Otherwise the man who pioneered the tradition of the Private Eyes may have ended up in the same trunk as the victim.

Chinese imprint

The Chinese were the next to adopt this genre in their unique tradition of storytelling known as Pingshu. Gong An story or Case Records of a Public Law Court has tales that go as far back as the Ming and Yuan Dynasty. These stories of crime and passion had an inverted motif. The murderer revealed himself at the very beginning of the story and also shared his motivations. The detective typically happened to be the local magistrate who was simultaneously trying to solve many such cases and the tales were more labyrinths and less whodunits. The Dutch writer, Robert Van Gulik not only translated these stories into English but also used them to create his own original crime fiction with Judge Dee.

Despite the proximity, neither the Arabs nor the Chinese influenced the genre in modern India. The Golden Age of Detective Fiction had to run its course in England and America in the 1920s and 1930s before the Indian Private Eye created ripples in local shores. He happened to be a Bengali and squarely rejected the trappings of the Raj. The creator of Byomkesh Bakshi, Sharadindu Bandopadhyay acknowledged the influence of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie and the sleuths these worthy names had created but took care to ensure the inimitable Bakshi was more Bengali Bhadralok than British Pukka Sahib.

What is also interesting is Bandopadhyay did not want to be slotted as a writer of detective fiction despite having created the first famous Indian Private Eye of the post colonial crime fiction. He wanted the stories featuring Bakshi to be thought of and read as social novels.

More than three decades later the brilliant Byomkesh had a worthy successor in Feluda, the intrepid genius created by the auteur Satyajit Ray. Because Ray’s metier lay in cinema, we didn’t have to imagine what Feluda looked like.

Ray’s favourite actor Soumitra Chatterjee essayed the role in the two films helmed by the creator himself. Feluda had a back story as a teacher that made it convenient for him to pontificate a little when the story reached its climax and the case was close to being cracked.

These ramblings seem to be cleverly positioned to invoke the memories of the Belgian detective with a moustache to die for. The same pompous and infuriating man who ended up exasperating even Agatha Christie, his creator, after she had featured him in many of her immortal works.

The trend set by Bandopadhyay and Ray continue to date. Most Indian writers dabbling in this genre are more than happy to pay homage to the English pioneers while creating their own sleuths with their unique set of idiosyncrasies. Mahesh Dattani, Sahitya Akademi winning playwright, was asked to write a series of radio plays for BBC4. His detective is a feisty woman, Uma Rao. According to Dattani, Rao is a sociology teacher with access to police files as her husband is a Superintendent of Police. “But her sleuthing skills are not limited to exploring hidden files or finding patterns in behaviour. She is a combination of Miss Marple and Holmes,” he concludes with disarming candour.

Aditya Sudarshan who won the Hindu Metroplus playwright award last year made his debut as a novelist with a work of crime fiction A Nice Quiet Holiday and quick on the heels of the first success came his second novel Show Me a Hero . Sudarshan admits, “I did read lots of Conan Doyle and Christie growing up, but the detective writer who had the most influence on me (that I’m aware of) is the British writer G.K. Chesterton, who wrote the Father Brown series of detective stories. They were very philosophical stories, completely different from anything else in the genre. I liked them best of all.”

Authors impress

The crime fiction of Madhulika Liddle is a little different. Her detective Muzaffar Jang lives and operates in 17th Century Mughal India. She makes a distinction between her chosen genre and those of her contemporaries.

Liddle admits to reading and loving all the classic detective fiction authors ranging from Christie to Conan Doyle to Chesterton to Sayers. But she is quick to clarify. “I was inspired to write detective fiction not because of them but because of authors who specialise in historical detective fiction, such as Ellis Peters, Robert van Gulik, and Peter Tremayne. Historical detective fiction is a fairly distinct subgenre in itself, so my sources of inspiration are different!”

The exception always goes to prove the rule. Some of our crime fiction writers make a distinction between reading and loving the English Cosies and getting influenced by them.

Smita Jain, creator of the delightful Kasturi Kumar in what promises to be a series happily admits to curling up with a good detective fiction on the days she is not writing. But she hastens to add, “My characters are not inspired by the likes of Poirot, Marple and Holmes as I find them quite dated. Delightful and quirky and very apt for the era in which their creators wrote but dated now. My characters are much more contemporary.”

Author Anita Nair after writing a number of critically acclaimed books is making a foray into detective fiction. Her first crime novel is being launched by HarperCollins later this year. Nair reveals that she was not a fan of murder mysteries in her growing up years. “I grew up reading some Agatha Christie but found I ended up reading the last chapter half way through and that ruined the book for me. So I couldn’t read crime fiction at all... I think I wrote one simply because I wanted to see if I could and to discover what it entailed.”

Let’s leave it to Miss Marple or Father Brown to deduce whether it is possible to have read a Christie or a Sayers and remain untouched while writing a blood splattered tale full of red herrings. They can get on with their investigations on a winter evening when the neighbouring hills are shrouded with a swirling mist.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

not that kind of rain

not that kind of rain
teasing in coy drizzles
over too soon to bring
listlessness and complaints
of how humidity made
everything worse...

this one broke in sheets
and torrents flashes of
blinding lightening to make
men and women huddle
under the slight bit
of shelter protruding rooftops
on needy shops offer

the man who drank
alone in a cheap bar
all evening stumbled and
sang not heeding the
knee length water and
drivers of autorickshaws
hooting their accustomed greed
for such nights

soaked to the bone, he
turned sober and cursed
his luck, his life and the
unappetising fight that awaited
him when he reached home
in the morning when they
discovered his bloated body
near an overflowing ditch ,
he looked happy...

you could say he was
smiling at a private joke.

Vijay Nair

ode to the facebook friend

ode to the facebook friend

dear distant facebook friend, thank you
for the tender ministrations, the teaspoons
of smug bile and the lessons in English about
the nuances of language... in the years spent
apart you have learnt to hate rather well the
small and the not so small things and deserve
a timeless tribute of unshaken loyalty

dear distant facebook friend, to honor
the poison i shall play the roles you want
turn into the father of the friend who mocked
you when you took him the wedding invite
the lover who took your money to sleep with
someone else and the friend who refuses to
meet you when you are in the same city

dear distant facebook friend, to please you
i shall burn a few trees, spit at the sky
hide behind a wall and throw stones at passers by
smear my face with animal blood, mock those
who care for me and chide others who don’t
care enough run around in circles in the
backyard of a few happy memories

dear distant facebook friend, to bless you
i will journey in time to 14th century Italy
to seek the original mask from commedia del arts
not the politician, nor the doctor, nor the commander
but the harlequin full of despair for not
being clever enough to wipe the pain of the
dispossessed, content to mock the mirror

Vijay Nair

Saturday, June 2, 2012

In the trail of...

( Something I wrote for Deccan Herald years ago)

Theories abound about how a practising physician came to invent the greatest fictional sleuth of all times. The most credible conclusion comes from Peter Costello in his book 'The real world of Sherlock Holmes'.

According to Costello, the inspiration for the legendary detective was based on a rather disconcerting experience of the young doctor in 1885. Sir Arthur Canon Doyle was struggling to set up his practice those days. One evening he found a detective waiting for him in his home. A patient of his had expired a few days ago and there were speculations about the death. The man had died of meningitis. The detective left after a courteous meeting. The case was closed and no scandal followed. But the meeting left an indelible mark.

A year later, the young doctor began work on the first Holmes novel in the same room; little realizing the strange enigmatic character he had created would endure in history as one of the greatest literary figure. His sleuth would be analyzed by countless academicians and scholars and inspire as many fictional counterparts by other writers of detective fiction.

Holmes has endured over a century of adulation and his popularity remains undiminished. Perhaps the most lasting testimony to his universal appeal comes from the tragic fact that even today across cultures there are madmen who claim to be Sherlock Holmes.

Apart from his legendary powers of detection, Holmes has little to recommend him. He is moody and antisocial, most comfortable in the confines of his room, carrying out strange experiments much to the distraction of his devoted friend and foil, Dr. Watson. He is addicted to morphine and cocaine. He got away with it because the use of these drugs was not illegal and would not be until the Dangerous Drug Acts of 1965 and 1967.

Holmes is listless and frequently complains of the monotony of existence. He has no lovers. This was a conscious decision by the author, as he wanted Holmes to be free of ordinary human passions. The work that went in to creating Holmes is apparent. He is a master of disguises, an enigma to Watson and immensely egotistical. A super hero played against the very human Dr. Watson who was as evidence suggests, based on the author.

The sleuth is consciously modeled as an alien. His abilities are beyond the reach of human comprehension. When he unravels a mystery, the reader is forced to question why he could not see what the detective has uncovered. For the entire 'elementary' prowess that Holmes boasted of, he continues to remain a mystery for the legion of his fans all over the world.

It may not be too difficult to comprehend the 'foreignness' of Hercule Poirot given that Agatha Christie had acknowledged the influence of Sherlock Holmes in her writing. The alien nationality of this quaint, moustache obsessed detective with an egg shaped head, gave the enigmatic tilt required for any self respecting fictional detective, who had to practice his trade in the void created by Holmes. Apart from his nationality, we do not have much personal data about the Belgian brain. He had crushes but no romantic alliances. His greatest devotion was to chocolate liqueurs. A trait that disgusts his faithful friend and confidante' Captain Hastings, much in the way the drugs troubled Watson.

Apart from a comparatively harmless if not equally distasteful addiction, the trait that Poirot shared with Holmes is the vanity with which he held his own intelligence. The two remarkable sleuths had the habit of leaving their foils stupefied by their bizarre behavior during the course of an investigation. But Poirot seemingly had more depth as a human being. There are times when the reader gets the feeling he genuinely cared for the victim as well as some of the good people who get falsely implicated to add the necessary twist to the tale. However the fictional detective as epitomized by Hercule Poirot continued to be a maverick master. The point of identification for the readers was inevitably the companions, Watson and Hastings, the foil through which the hero must be seen.

Maybe unconsciously Christie saw through the limitation of this device and went on to invent the most popular woman sleuth of all times - Miss Marple. The author confesses in her autobiography that she had no idea that she was on her way to creating another equally if not more popular detective when she wrote her first Miss Marple mystery- Murder at the Vicarage. Miss Jane Marple was squarely rooted to the land where she solved her murders. She was a tall thin woman with snow-white hair. The kind of dowdy English spinster, stereotypes are spun around.

The inspiration for creating this lovable sleuth lay closer home for Christie. She became so fond of the character of Dr. Sheppard's sister who she had designed as a complete detective service at home in The murder of Roger Ackroyd, that a more substantial persona had to emerge from her. Also acknowledged in the autobiography is the role that Christie's grandmother played in fleshing out Miss Marple. They both believed the worst of human nature and invariably the cynical perspective turned out to be true.

It is easy to fall in love with Miss. Marple. She is completely in synch with the cozies' Christie wrote. She epitomized resilience, depth and an understanding of human nature that is compassionate as well as unsparing. She was the first to break out of the white male enigmatic detectives that were the order of the day. Three quarters of a century after she was created, her appeal is undiminished. We identify with her because it is possible to have a Jane Marple in our circle of acquaintances if not in our extended family.

Unfortunately not enough murders happen around us for them to solve it!
Christie also created a pair of detectives - Tommy and Tuppence, who emerged from solid secure middleclass backgrounds with a penchant for solving murder mysteries. They pale only in comparison to the flashier ' Poirot' and the adorable ' Miss Marple'.

P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, revered writers of detective fiction of our times will readily acknowledge Christie as a reference point. But their creations come to us with the psychological baggage modern existence levies on us. An attribute that contributes to the humanness of their sleuths. Both Adam Dalgleish and Chief Inspector Wexford are dealing with present day angst.

They are simultaneously dealing with their personal dilemmas as well as a murderer at large. The success of a literary endeavor by any of these two writers depends upon these heroic characters finding a resolution to their internal conflict as well as nabbing the culprit. They are intelligent men, often found self-introspecting.

Dalgleish in particular has a rich inner life. He has published two books of poetry. But it is difficult to penetrate his brooding demeanor. The characters that abound in a P.D.James novel including some of the suspects try nonetheless without much success. James projects him as a cool professional. It almost appears he suffers in his investigations because being self aware he can truly understand the motives of the characters of each murder drama. He understands love is often a possessive passion that can easily transform into hate and lead to murder.

Many of the concerns he grapples with are universal. In Mind to Murder, he lights candles for his dead spouse in a church because of a habit he cannot break. He does not fear death, but he fears old age and the indignity of dependence while he passes through the outpatient department of a hospital in Shroud for a Nightingale.

The works of P.D. James have a moral ambiguity and often it is possible to dislike her victim more than the murderer. Dalgleish is an apt investigator in such a setting. Like all of us, he is unsure about the constructs of true morality. James also introduced a female sleuth- Cordelia Gray. But the gifted writer seems to encounter more difficulty in fleshing out the young woman with a troubled family history who inherits a detective agency by chance.

Tellingly, the first book Cordelia Gray appears in is called ' An unsuitable job for a woman'. The dilemma lies in the more humane orientation of Cordelia. It is difficult to persist with a detective who lets off a murderer as Cordelia does in one of her assignments.

Chief Inspector Wexford is a family man often confronted with issues of bigotry, discrimination and violence in society. Ruth Rendell has been forthright in her assertion that she likes to give a political undertone to her Wexford novels. The detective has liberal views but never goes overboard in his support. He has an activist daughter who he does not like very much, preferring her actress sibling. It is hinted Wexford is quite ugly married to a beautiful woman. He is obviously besotted by his wife. Much of his inner space is taken up with various kinds of crisis, Sylvia, the activist daughter finds herself in. In dealing with her, Wexford comes in touch with yet another facet of modern day 'evil' - be it domestic violence, modern slavery or environmental issues. He is the man next door albeit with an agenda.

The circle of the eccentric detective came a full circle with Inspector Morse created by Colin Dexter. Like Holmes, Morse was also a bachelor. Unlike Holmes, Morse has many human failings, not the least of which are women. He showed a peculiar disposition towards having short affairs with nurses. He was also finicky about his English. There was a fondness for booze, crosswords and Wagnerian opera. Many of his sensibilities were sexist that had to be edited out of immensely popular television series created by BBC.

As a detective, his methods were based on associative logic that led him towards brilliant but erratic conclusions. Dexter killed him in The Remorseful Day. According to the remorseless author, the fate was preordained given Morse's predisposition to all things unhealthy. But Morse lives on in the collective consciousness of millions of his fans. Following a public outcry, Sir Arthur Canon Doyle resurrected Holmes after he had killed him. No such salvation awaits Morse. The author is quite decided that the complex and fascinating Morse would continue to rest in his grave.