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Delhi is a fantastic backdrop for crime novels'
British-origin journalist and writer Tarquin Hall has been living in New Delhi for the last few years. Married to an Indian, Hall is known for his books such as Salaam Brick Lane and To The Elephant Graveyard. More recently, he has penned three detective novels. The series, set in Delhi, features a private detective by the name of Vish Puri, who operates out of Khan Market. Fond of chillies and street-side chaat, the moustachioed detective investigates high profile murders and conducts background checks on prospective brides and grooms with equal ease. Hall travelled to Pakistan by road for his latest book, The Case of The Deadly Butter Chicken. Even as he works on his fourth book of the series, chances are one of the earlier lot will be made into a film. He spoke about his creation, Vish Puri, and his adopted city.
How did you get into writing?
I left school at 18, not wanting to study any further. I then worked as a bellboy in Texas and New York. I wanted to be a photographer then. I then started to travel occasionally and wrote for the international media. One of my first stories was on rattlesnake hunting for Frontier Post, an English newspaper in Peshawar. I then wrote for the Friday Times in Lahore and later travelled to East Africa from where I wrote features for British newspapers. My first book was a travel narrative about my time in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa. I thought I wanted to do more books. Then I wrote To The Elephant Graveyard about elephant hunting in Assam. I always thought I would end up writing more non-fiction. I'm still very keen on that.
How does Delhi function as a backdrop for your books?
Delhi is a fantastic backdrop. I lived here in the 1990s, and then I'm back here now. I have seen it change. The size of the city is staggering compared to what it was in 1997-98. You have so many people coming in from rural areas, a lot of them very poor. That makes a city interesting. There's the growth of the middle classes and the creation of very concentrated wealth in certain areas. Show of wealth has become acceptable. In a city like Delhi, where you get so much social changes, upheaval and pressure on resources, you tend to get a lot of crime as well. I think the same goes for Sherlock Holmes. What made Arthur Conan Doyle popular was describing a city that had gone through remarkable change - the industrialisation, growth into the largest port in the world and becoming a great financial centre. That made London a fascinating backdrop. I think Delhi is going through that now.
There are a lot of Chanakya references in your books. Vish Puri almost worships him.
I have read pretty much all of the Arthashastra, particularly the passages on espionage. This came about initially because I did a story for the Sunday Times newspaper about real-life Indian detectives in Delhi. One of the detectives' inspirations was Chanakya. Puri is quite dismissive of British characters like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, because Indians have been spies for over 3000 years. It was all laid out by Chanakya in the Arthashastra. If you read that, it talks about how to be a spy, how to spy on your subjects, neighbours and which disguises to use, how to infiltrate households, that sort of thing. It's amazing stuff.
Puri has been compared to Poirot on more than one occasion. Is that unsettling?
I didn't consciously say he should be like him. I decided to have this character because to me it is very real. My wife has plenty of uncles just like that. Punjabi men of that age are generally very sure of themselves. They're not used to being challenged by their families. They like to brag about their achievements. In my journalistic career I have lost count of the number of times I have interviewed men like that. And I enjoy it. Poirot is very pompous, that's a similarity. But it wasn't a conscious thing. Those comparisons didn't really bother me. Similarly, there were comparisons with Alexander McCall Smith. I had never read his books. After I wrote the first draft, my agent suggested that I do. I read Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency and I loved it. It was very light, very poignant. But I am writing these books the way I want to.
Have there been film offers for your books?
There have been lots of offers. I've had several offers from Bollywood for Indian audience films. I was very tempted. I thought it would be tremendous fun. But these film things have a way of petering out. There seems to be a loss of interest. I've had a couple of offers here that haven't come together. Again, in Hollywood I have had several offers and gone through a lot of negotiations. There is a deal at the moment, which is getting quite close. It will be a West-financed film with an Indian executive producer, and an Indian star. The idea isn't really to make it for here, but for a Western audience. I think they hope it'll do well here.
Have you had any actor in mind for Vish Puri?
Om Puri is really my first choice, but I am waiting to see about that. I think he is one of the best actors in the world. I love him. East is East is one of my all-time favourite films, I think he should have got an Oscar for that. He has fantastic timing, his face is fantastic. Whenever he is on the screen I find him incredibly engaging. But they want a bit of star power for Western audience.
There's a perception that crime fiction in low-brow. Thoughts?
It is considered low-brow. That's the case everywhere. I think that's unfair because a lot of crime fiction is superbly written. It's a little bit more restricted than a general novel that can go in any direction. Certainly in India there's hardly any crime fiction written in English. I suspect, most Indian writers want to be taken seriously. Vikram Chandra could get away with Sacred Games. It wasn't his first novel, and he hasn't written any more (laughs). It's obviously looked down upon. You're never going to get a Booker Prize listing for a crime fiction novel. It doesn't really bother me, to be honest. I don't think I will write the great English novel. I don't aspire to write that sort of thing. I don't really like the affected modern novel. They ram emotions down your throat constantly. I'm more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy. If I were to write anything else, it would probably be thrillers or adventure stories. I like Mark Twain and Jack London. I really liked The Kite Runner, because it's not overdone. I can't read a word of Rushdie, or any of his contemporaries.
Have you read any Indian crime fiction in translation?
I am doing a story on it myself. I am going to read the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp fiction. I have a couple of Surendra Pathaks. I'm yet to read those.
Who are the crime and detective fiction authors that you like to read?
My favourite detective stuff I have read lately is this Italian writer called Andrea Camilleri. He has a detective called Montalbano. They're bestsellers in Italy and the UK. Montalbano keeps going off to have huge Italian meals;he's very particular about how things should be prepared. His plotlines are a lot simpler. When you read something like that it gets you in the right part of your brain with the writing.
You use a lot of Hindi and Punjabi slang in your books. How does the Western audience get the hang of it?
I think people enjoy that side of it. Very occasionally you'd say you're making fun. I don't see it that way. English is a completely mongrel language. It's constantly changing. I love the way English is spoken in India. I love putting in those turns of phrase. To me a word like "timepass" is a fantastic word. It's a completely made-up word but it makes sense and everyone understands what it means. Very few English words are authentically English. I love the way (Vish Puri's ) Mummy speaks. You can't hear that accent while reading. I find accents in Britain very flat. When you hear Indian ladies of a particular age reading English - they have that poetic voice, it's lovely.
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