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.

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