Partners in crime: Indian crime writers are becoming increasingly experimental

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Updated: February 05, 2017 3:17 AM

Bestselling author Ashwin Sanghi has just released Private Delhi, the second book in the Private series, for which he collaborates with American author James Patterson. Speaking with Namrata Rao on the sidelines of the recently-concluded Noir Literature Festival in Delhi, he talks about the challenges of collaborating with another author and the future of the crime fiction genre in India. Edited excerpts:

Author Shantanu Dhar at the 2017 Noir Literature Festival in Delhi; and (below) author Arjun Raj Gaind Author Shantanu Dhar at the 2017 Noir Literature Festival in Delhi; and (below) author Arjun Raj Gaind

Bestselling author Ashwin Sanghi has just released Private Delhi, the second book in the Private series, for which he collaborates with American author James Patterson. Speaking with Namrata Rao on the sidelines of the recently-concluded Noir Literature Festival in Delhi, he talks about the challenges of collaborating with another author and the future of the crime fiction genre in India. Edited excerpts:

IT’S JUST past 9 am on a cold Sunday morning. The roads leading up to Connaught Place in central Delhi are almost empty. To find a sizeable group of people chatting excitedly outside a book store is surprising. Waiting for the day’s sessions of the 2017 Noir Literature Festival to begin, these strangers are socialising over tea and Poirot. Inside the book store, plots and styles are being discussed. There are still about 30 minutes left for the first session of the fest, which celebrates crime fiction, to begin, but all the seats are occupied. Those who can’t find seats are happy to stand. “Crime fiction has always been one of the most popular literary genres in the West. In India, people are slowly warming up to desi crime writing now,” says Mita Kapur, founder and CEO, Siyahi, a literary consultancy that has co-produced the festival.

A look around any book store today reveals that gone are the days when international authors would dominate the crime fiction section. Giving them strict competition and sometimes even edging them out on these book shelves are Indian crime thrillers. In fact, so robust is the demand that even Hindi works have been translated in English. Take, for instance, Vibhuti Narain Rai’s 1988 Hindi novel Shahar Mein Curfew. “The novel has been translated in almost all Indian languages, but a translation in English means something special,” says Rai, adding, “The response has been overwhelming.”

Not just that. Taking it a step further, Indian crime writers are now venturing beyond the confines of a strait-laced crime story and experimenting within the genre to come out with something more appealing for readers. So while there is Shantanu Dhar whose The Red Trilogy has elements of fantasy, there are also writers like Arjun Raj Gaind and Malik Sajad who have come out with graphic crime novels. Then there is Vish Dhamija who writes legal crime fiction. In fact, his latest book, Nothing Else Matters, is a romantic crime fiction. So what’s driving this trend?

“Publishers are now becoming more experimental and willing to dabble in innovative ideas. Readers, too, are willing to try new types of writing,” says Gaind, who has written graphic crime novels such as Empire of Blood, Reincarnation Man, etc. But how is graphic art adaptable to writing crime? “The sequential medium is very dynamic and a lot more expressive than traditional prose,” explains Gaind, adding, “That is what makes film noir so enthralling… it is all about creating mood and atmosphere. If you look at books like Sin City, A History of Violence, From Hell or Road to Perdition, the way art and text come together to evoke a palpable sense of danger and urgency is intoxicating. As Dr Seuss put it, ‘Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent’.”Noir Literature Festival director Namita Gokhale puts things in perspective. “Crime writing is, in many senses, an umbrella genre, encapsulating in its scope all of human nature. It examines the social contract between the individual and the environment he/she inhabits. That’s why so many elements are coming together in crime fiction now.”

One of the challenges in crime fiction is to make it believable. Take, for instance, the fantasy crime fiction genre. While crime is rooted in reality, fantasy is a figment of imagination. So how does this marriage work? “You have to make the fantasy seem real. That’s the biggest challenge. Fantasy is the easiest thing to create, but to make it believable is difficult,” says 48-year-old Dhar, the author of the vampire-centric The Red Trilogy. Explaining what inspired him to pen down a crime-fantasy series, the Pune-based author says, “I was sick and tired of watching and reading vampire movies and books. I wanted to write a story based on scientific findings, where you actually start believing in vampires. I spoke with doctors in New Delhi, asking them that if humans were to evolve into vampires, how would that happen? We researched for six months… And the conclusion was that the only way humans could evolve into vampires is if people suffering from leukemia began to genetically mutate. The doctors told me that the human body is such that if you can’t find a cure for a particular disease, it will start mutating over a period of time. So what I did was give a scientific basis to my vampire story. In fact, my readers tell me that they find the books very scary because it’s all so believable.”

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Going forward, what’s next for the genre? More experimentation, says Dhamija. “There will be more writers experimenting in the various sub-genres of crime fiction—noir, crime with romance, mythological crime, legal, etc. India today is the third-largest English fiction market in the world. And reading is addictive. Things will change, take different shape, some genres will go, some authors will write cross-genre. As long as there’s a market for it, it will continue to grow.”

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