Why India is the perfect setting for a crime novel

'Time spent in India has an extraordinary effect on one. It acts as a barrier that makes the rest of the world seem unreal.'

Posted on August 11, 2015 in Guest Author
Tags: Vaseem Khan

These words – penned by Tahir Shah, author of travel book Beyond the Devil’s Teeth – could not be truer. I spent ten years in India, at a time when it was transforming itself from a merely very large and populous country into the global powerhouse that it is today. My experiences during that incredible decade changed me at a fundamental level, and with it the way that I perceived the rest of the world.

TUIWhen I returned to the concrete urbanscape of London’s East End, it was as if the horizons had narrowed and colour had been drained from the sky. It was inevitable, perhaps, that I would choose to set my debut novel on the subcontinent. The kaleidoscope of fond memories that had returned with me demanded an Indian canvas and they found one in The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, which follows a Mumbai police inspector forced into early retirement who cannot let go of the final case of his career – the death of a poor local boy. Chopra is simultaneously confronted by the outlandish dilemma of taking in a baby elephant, sent to him by his enigmatic uncle.

Only in India, as a friend of mine recently commented.

Over the years India has proven fertile territory for crime writers. The Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay wrote thirty-two stories featuring his everyman private investigator Byomkesh Bakshi. H.R.Keating managed to write the first of his twenty-five Inspector Ghote mysteries without setting foot in India. I am in a somewhat unique position: born and raised in one sphere, whilst having lived for many years in the other – a “half-and-halfer” as Salman Rushdie might say. Perhaps this unique perspective helps me to reflect on why India is so desirable a setting for the brand of fiction that I write.

Crime fiction is about the human condition and nowhere in the world is the sheer range of humanity – with all its foibles, greatnesses, eccentricities and pedantry – so magnificently expressed as on the subcontinent. Churned within a billion-strong melting pot of races, religions, languages and creeds singular characters are relatively easy to bring to life. The physicality of the country itself is a vital presence, a vivid contrast to the often routine settings that western writers are forced to employ. For in India we find timeless cities such as voracious Mumbai and notorious Kolkotta, rural villages populated by scheming munshis and colourful farmfolk, and a supporting cast of incredible vistas ranging from snow-capped Himalayan peaks in the north to emerald backwaters in the south. But there is something else at work here, too, something intangible, a knowing sense of mystery and exoticism that, though tacitly acknowledged throughout Indian fiction, nevertheless beguiles the western psyche. It is like a trap which we know awaits us and yet we cannot help but tumble willingly into its warm and familiar embrace.

India is a magical mystery tour where the impossible becomes merely improbable – such as the existence of a very gifted, crime-fighting baby elephant. It is difficult to imagine that in an Indian-set novel a single sentence might be dull. What more could any writer ask for?

Vaseem Khan’s charming debut novel about an Inspector who inherits an elephant and an unsolved murder on his last day at work is out on Thursday. Find out more The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra here.

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