7 October 2012

The Case of the Punjabi Detective

My Asian Age piece on the mystery writer Tarquin Hall and his wonderful creation: the portly Delhi detective, Vish Puri. 

When the father of a Pakistani cricketer dies of poisoning during a post-match VVIP dinner in New Delhi, the trail seems to lead to an illegal cricket betting syndicate that has bookies in every town on the subcontinent and is headed by an underworld kingpin believed to reside in Pakistan. But because The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (2012) is the third mystery featuring Vish Puri, the portly and wonderfully entertaining Punjabi detective, we know that sooner or later his Mummy is going to get involved. And the plot will thicken.

Vish Puri, “India’s Most Private Investigator”, first appeared on the literary stage in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant (2009), complete with waxed moustache, safari suit, signature Sandown cap and an irresistible weakness for chilli pakoras. Having traversed Jaipur morgues and police stations and the uranium mines of Jadugoda in search of a missing maid in the first book, Puri has since solved The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (2010), a marvellously entertaining take on rationalists, magicians and fake godmen that remains my favourite of the series.

Hall’s long globetrotting career as a journalist has included stints in the United States, Pakistan, India, Kenya and Turkey. He has earlier published several non-fiction books, including To the Elephant Graveyard (2000), an account of a search for a killer elephant in Assam and Salaam Brick Lane (2005), a memoir about a year spent living above a Bangladeshi sweatshop in London’s East End. But Vish Puri is his first fictional creation.

Hall describes Martin Amis and Rushdie as “unreadably pretentious” and prefers “a good story that you can follow, simply written” — though “simple”, he’s quick to add, “doesn’t mean easy”. When he decided to try his hand at fiction, he was only sure of one thing — he wasn’t going to write “terribly worthy” novels. He began writing a book set in a motel in India, but abandoned it when his agent “said it was rubbish”.

The idea for a detective series came, fittingly, out of a journalistic piece. And the idea for that piece came from a conversation with his wife Anu Anand’s cousin. “I was teasing Shikha — she’s from Jammu — about how she wasn’t married, and she started telling me about how she had discovered that she was being investigated by a detective,” Hall remembers. The prospective groom’s family wanted to find out if she drank, smoked, had a boyfriend. Private investigators, it seemed, were doing booming business in India, with more and more people hiring them to inquire into prospective arranged matches. The whole thing seemed superbly story-worthy to Hall, and his interviews with several private investigators led to a long reported piece.

Later, when he was scouting about for fiction ideas, the detectives he’d met came back to him. But what really helped him visualise his rotund, opinionated, middle-aged Punjabi investigator was his wife’s uncles. “They have a certain size to them, they’ve become the seniors in their families,” Hall says. “They sit around drinking Scotch and making fairly bad jokes, but they’re very wily. At the same time they have a sense that there ought to be certain standards in society.” Vish Puri is very much this sort of combination of streetsmartness and pomposity: a pugnacious Punjabi man of a certain age who is used to “telling everybody what to do”.

“In the West, everyone would just tell them to shut up. The age hierarchy was thrown out of the window there long ago,” says Hall. “That has its benefits, but it’s also a bit of a shame — people with a certain amount of experience in teaching, say, or politics, aren’t necessarily given their due.” In the Indian universe that Vish Puri occupies, in contrast, young people tend to respect their parents’ wishes; daughters studying in a different city check with fathers about whether it’s okay to take a low-cost flight back home on Diwali; grandfathers have no qualms getting their granddaughters’ prospective husbands secretly investigated. (This was an important subplot in Missing Servant).

Hall’s narratives are punctuated by stable, wholesome family gatherings where any deep, dark rifts or family secrets are kept out of sight — unless, as in Butter Chicken, they turn out to be crucial in solving the mystery. There’s entertainment provided by mild friction between Puri and his slightly foolish brother-in-law Baggaji, or more integral to plot, between Puri and his redoubtable Mummy — but on the whole, Hall’s version of the North Indian family is a genial one. Whether it’s a grandchild’s mundan ceremony or a family Diwali, everyone seems to basically get along. “Yes, well, I like that side of India,” says Hall. “There aren’t a lot of pleasantries between people who don’t know each other otherwise, which is jarring as a foreigner. So I like it when you go to someone’s house in India and they’re all very cordial.”

Some of this affection for the ways of his adoptive country emerges from an implicit comparison with the one he grew up in. “The family structure in Britain is a mess,” Hall says. “Here, all familial relationships may not be smooth sailing, but everyone recognises that keeping the bond alive is important.”

Hall’s relationship with the Indian city seems more conflicted. The vivid, non-stop action is clearly something he finds attractive. The everyday buzz we take for granted in a city like Delhi, he points out, can’t be matched by a Western city even at its most eventful: London during the Olympics, when there is supposedly so much going on—“everywhere you go there are announcements,” — is actually “really quiet and predictable”. But the brashness and loudness of public behaviour in Delhi still seems to affect him — he mentions with a tinge of quiet despair that he has “a driver who never says sorry or thank you”, and confesses that living in the leafy, quiet, uber-genteel neighbourhood of Nizamuddin East is a way to keep the everyday onslaught of Delhi life slightly at bay.

Vish Puri, not unlike Hall, is happy to avail of the cushion that upper middle-class life in Delhi can provide: he is hands-on when he needs to be, but is driven everywhere by his driver, and cannot live without airconditioning. But he is also positioned as somewhat old-school: he may live in Gurgaon, but his car is still the trusty Ambassador, and the stolid 1980s décor of his Khan Market office is sans glass partitions. The old-school-ness extends to Puri’s family life. Domestic help is aplenty, but his wife Rumpi insists on waking at five in the morning to supervise the running of the house (“No doubt she was downstairs now churning fresh butter for his double-roti”) and keep up traditional homestyle beauty treatments (“Or she was in the second bedroom rubbing mustard oil into her long auburn hair”).

As is apparent, Hall caters happily to a romantic vision of India, strewing the books with references that a British readership would recognise, from the Gymkhana Club and cricket to the Partition, and adding swatches of local colour that might appear in a Did-You-Know type travel show: the diamond-transporting Angadiyas of Surat, or the genealogy-keeping Pandas of Hardwar. And you will either be amused or irritated by the ceaseless “Indianisms” squeezed in to every conversation. The reversed word order of “So engrossed I become” or “He kept all these things where exactly?” is common enough in Indian English to feel accurate. But when Mummy tells a gathering of drivers — with whom she would definitely speak in Hindi in real life — that “Some goondas have done armed robbery of our kitty party”, it seems like we’re in a Delhi-set version of Mind Your Language.

But what is nice about Hall’s books is that his gaze is never sneering. His affection for India — unlike say, William Dalrymple in City of Djinns — transcends the nostalgia-inducing stuff. His clear-eyed look at the contemporary is delivered in a non-judgmental, even-handed tone. Puri’s scandalised thoughts on immoral youngsters may seem a caricature, but there’s always detail when it matters most. We’re told what a young urban professional shells out to a personal trainer versus what he pays his car-washer. In Missing Servant, which has plenty to say about the maltreatment of domestic servants, we also hear a maid bargaining with a potential employer. There’s no shying away from the compulsions of poverty or powerlessness — but there is no weepy sensationalising of them either.

These books are fiction — and enjoyably plotted fiction, too — but Hall takes a sharp-eyed pleasure in the facts that can only be described as journalistic. In the best possible way.

(A version of this piece appeared in today's Asian Age.)

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