Popular Fiction Writing in English by Indian Authors [Revised]
By Narayan Radhakrishnan
Narayan is a lawyer by profession, a voracious reader by passion – of mysteries and thrillers from Trivandrum, India. A self proclaimed numero – uno legal thriller lover, he is the author of A FICTION OF LAW: A STUDY IN LAW AND LITERATURE which looks into the growth and development of the legal thriller genre. Author of a couple of other books on law- he is also the official reviewer for two web journals http://www.rebeccasreads.com/ and http://www.newmysteryreader.com/ – wherein he reviews the latest and best in mysteries.
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As stated in Part 1, there was a lull in thriller and fiction writing in the Eighties However, in the early Nineties two youngsters Ashok Banker and Shashi Warrier revitalized the genre- Banker with his novels The Iron Bra, Murder & Champagne and Ten Dead Admen and Shashi Warrier with his novels The Night of the Krait, The Orphan and The Sniper. The works of both Banker and Warrier were published by Rupa and Penguin respectively, and for the first time, major publishing houses began to seriously evince interest in Indian thriller writing.
Though Ashok Banker had published crime stories in the Seventies and also some children’s books, it was only in 1992 that Rupa published 3 crime novels of Banker, with the print media hailing them (wrongly) as “India’s first crime novels.” The Iron Bra was a thriller were a young woman, Sheila Ray turns vigilante in the task of bringing to justice the killers of her father- a dedicated police office. However, this book (and also Murder & Champagne and Ten Dead Admen) remains out of print…though the author has plans to bring hem back to life in the near future. Since then Banker has shifted gears and published a series of books …his own interpretation of the Ramayana, achieving a cult status in India and the West.
Shashi Warrier’s Night of the Krait (1996) had Lt. Colonel Rajan Menon close on heels of terrorists of free Kashmir who had hijacked a train containing many a VIP. Menon is soon convinced that these are not ordinary terrorists. He dubs the ruthless genius behind the kidnapping ‘The Krait’, and begins to believe that there is more to the terrorist attack than what meets the eye. The Orphan (1998) had Rajan Menon being summoned to head an operation to track down the kidnappers of the Prime Minister’s granddaughter. And like Krait, the novel was also a page-turning read. Sniper (2000) was a tale of revenge of an Army man turned renegade who has taken upon himself the task of bringing to book, the persons who raped and murdered his daughter. All three books were taut reads. The attention to detail and planning draws favourable comparison with the works of John Le’ Carre. And Warrier invigorated the spy thriller in India.
Similarly, Amitav Ghosh also tasted unprecedented success with Calcutta Chromosome (1996). The novel follows the life of Antar, an employee of International Water Council in United States whose investigation surrounding the disappearance of an employee, Murugan, of IWC. Antar finds that the Murugan was obsessed with the research of Dr. Ronald Ross, a pioneer in Malaria related studies, and that the disappearance of Murugan has something to do with the medical history. A quick read, the same was a big success of 1996.
The success of Banker, Warrier and Ghosh also saw many an author taking up thriller novels. Journalist Vikram A. Chandra’s (of NDTV fame), The Srinagar Conspiracy (Penguin, 2000) a political thriller set in Kashmir was a mild success, though could not boast of the finesse of the Shashi Warrier works. Chandra had the benefit of reporting extensively from the Valley during the height of the Kargil war. With an insider’s insight Chandra sets his novel in the height of Indo- Pak tension. Three bosom friends, of varying background, culture and religious believes, fall prey to different political and moral ideologies. Old friendships and relationships take a backseat, and each puts their life to risk for their own ideology- one to create chaos in India, the other to protect India. Briskly narrated, the novel was reminiscent of Ken Follett’s thriller Triple.
Tehelka Journalist Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13 (Penguin, 2003) was a bone-crunching action thriller revolving around a former army cadet turned investigative journalist Minty Mehta, a thrill seeking, self destructive fellow with a taste for hard drugs and kinky sex. The magazine for which Mehta works sends him to report the Indo-Pakistan hostilities on the Kashmir border. He is embedded with the army and makes many sorties over the enemy lines from Bunker 13. But soon the coverage of war becomes a secondary issue as he discovers that a few rogue army men are deeply involved in drugs and arms seized from smugglers. Narrated in racy style, the novel was a huge success. Bangalore author and former officer of Indian Military Intelligence, Jesse Kochar’s contribution was Spyder (1998) – a nail-biting story of the Indian-Pakistani secret services crossing swords. The novel provides, insights into the Asian style covert operations, mail tampering, secret writing, eaves-dropping, counter-espionage etc., bringing out the best of the author’s experience in the military. Journalist Rajeev Jacob’s The Lunatic from Multan (Lancer Books, 2005) revolved around the mystery behind forty Indian army personnel who went missing after the 1971 Indo- Pak War. Though the Government of India, feared that they still might be languishing in Pakistani jails, Islamabad had denied the same. The story is about a person who escapes from one such prison. The novel was a minor hit of the day.
The Indo- Pak war of 1971 also was the background of Maloy Krishna Dhar’s novels Mission to Pakistan (Manas Publications, 2002) and Operation Triple X (Manas Publications, 2007). Mission to Pakistan is a stylish tale of espionage set in India and Pakistan and brings into focus the unseen intelligence war which takes place in the shadows of the real war. Operation Triple X is the story of an Indian spy trapped in Pakistan in the peak period of the 1971 war, and the hullabaloo that followed. More recently Commander Harinder Sikka of the Indian Navy wrote Calling Sehmat, a novel that highlights the role of a Kashmiri woman who became a spy in Pakistan during the last Indo-Pakistan war. The priceless intelligence she provided helped to stop an attack on Indian warships like IMS Vikrant based in Mumbai harbour, and saved the lives of thousands of brave sailors. The book was published in 2008. Terrorism and Kashmir issue was the subject of Rajeev Sharma’s debut work Sting in the Tale. The author also put a Bollywood element into the work, and the same was well received by Indian readers. Former Director General of Police, Kondath Mohandas, put his experience to good use while narrating The Assassination (1993), set in the background of the assassination of Rajeev Gandhi. Botanical Scientist RN Sharma’s The Avenger and Compelling Reasons (both by Magna Publishing, 1996) – both Bollywood style murder masala stories created a minor ruckus when it was first published. Compelling Reasons was murder thriller, were a cuckolded husband decides to do away with his wife’s paramour and the conundrum that follows. Bengali author Kallol Senguptaa’s Death Knocks at Midnight (Adventoure, 2005) also exploited certain Bollywoodish elements. Set in murky world of the Mumbai underworld, the novel was a mixture of romance and action. Though all these books were mild successes, it’s difficult to get a copy of the same nowadays.
Likewise Operation Karakoram, by Delhi lawyer Aravind Nayar (Rupa, 2005) was riveting thriller. It had an interesting plot reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal. A charismatic right wing politician is all set to become the next Prime Minister of India, which may create adverse consequences for Pakistan. The Pakistan Intelligence department seeks the help of an ace assassin to kill of the PM in waiting, and what follows is excellent action, but the novel sank without creating much of a furor. Same was the destiny with Baqir Shameem’s The Final Option (Frog Books, 2005). Marketed as India’s first “War thriller”, it had an interesting plot- of the capture of Osama Bin Laden and its aftermath. Unfortunately, the book made a quick exit from the stands. The same fate awaited The Himalayan Conspiracy (India log 2006) by Sutradhar (a pseudonym for an author who still remains unknown). An Ira Levinish futuristic thriller the plot revolves around the hunt for the future Dalai Lama. At the same time, the Chinese have hatched a plot to topple the Indian democracy and it is upto Norbu, the CIA agent protecting the child Dalai Lama, the upright President Vishwanathan and Vijaya, the Chief Justice of India to come to India’s rescue. But even with this zany plot setting the book was a failure. However, Ramesh Menon’s Hunt for K, (Rupa, 2002) a whodunit, featuring Inspector Partha on the hunt for mysterious killer who is just known by the codename K had a moderately good run. Nevertheless, in recent years, Menon has followed the Banker way and is busy writing his own version of the Mahabharatha. Reethi Gadekar also had good fortune with Families at Home (2007), a crime thriller where police officer Nikhil Juneja, a foul-mouthed and brash Delhi cop, is asked to look into the suicide of one of the daughters of the capital’s most respectable industrialist families. Investigations reveal that the suicide was in fact a deviously plotted murder and a trail of dirty family secrets is uncovered. The book was a bestseller in India.
Tom Clancy type terror novels have been few in India- though instances of terrorism are on the rise in the Indian sub continent. One of the welcome fresh voices from India in this genre is Mukul Deva, a retired major of the Indian army. Lashkar, published in 2008 was based on the Delhi bombings of 2005 and was a major success. The Major is busy on work with its sequel Salim Must Die. It follows the life of a supposedly dead terrorist who is hell-bent on creating a new order of chaos. The same will be published in 2010.
Supernatural thrillers found a welcome voice through Al Raines (pseudonym for husband-wife duo Abhigyan and Mrinal Jha). In November Rain, (Undercover Utopia, 1994), a tribute to the Guns n’ Roses song by the same name), Raines narrates a supernatural tale of love and angst through the life of six medical students. The same was an exciting and page turning love story. Raines followed the same with The Prayer (Undercover Utopia, 2004), a novel which was marketed as the “scariest horror novel ever to be written.” The authors also promised money back to the buyer, if they could convince the author that Prayer was not the “the scariest/darkest books one has ever read.” Soul Search Engine is another work by this duo.
In the past four or five years, many more authors have taken to mystery writing achieving stupendous success. Vikram Chandra’s (not to be confused with the aforementioned Vikram A. Chandra) magnum opus Sacred Games (Faber, 2005) was a phenomenal bestseller. The novel bridged the gap between hardcore literature and pulp fiction in India. The hero is a middle aged Sikh policeman Sartaj Singh, who finds himself playing out of his league when a tip-off leads him to the last sanctuary of a famous gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, who shortly before his death asks Sartaj Singh a question, (what the question is I will not reveal), and Sartaj finds himself on a whole new path of investigation, that takes us through the dark side of Mumbai city. The book was a grand success both in India and in the West.
Likewise, a rising star in this genre is Vikas Swarup- whose books have won critical acclaim in both India and in the West. Q&A (Random House, 2005) is a thrilling and enchanting story of an illiterate orphan, Ram Mohammed Thomas, being sentenced to jail…for answering all questions in a “Who Will Win a Billion Contest” correctly. The police believe that he has cheated. Rescued from the police cell by a lawyer, Ram takes us on an amazing tour of his life – from the day he is salvaged from a dustbin, to his employment with a faded Bollywood star, to meeting a security-crazed Australian colonel, by way of a career as an over-creative tour guide at the Taj Mahal, to falling in love with Nita, a young prostitute. Passed from pillar to post for eighteen years, Ram’s instinct for strategy and survival is infallible. Ram draws on a store of street wisdom and trivia to provide him with the essential keys, not only to the quiz show, but to life itself. Set in modern India, Q&A is a beguiling blend of high comedy and touching melancholy. The book recently became an Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire. Swarup followed the success of Q&A with Six Suspects (Random House, 2008). A millionaire playboy convicted of killing a bar girl has now been found murdered in his farmhouse on the day of his acquittal The police zero on to six suspects- each of whom had a reason for murder. It is upto Arun Advani, an investigative journalist, to discover the truth as the lives of these six suspects unravel before our eyes: a corrupt bureaucrat who claims to have become Mahatma Gandhi overnight; an American tourist infatuated with an Indian actress; a stone-age tribesman on a quest to recover a sacred stone; a Bollywood sex-symbol with a guilty secret; a mobile-phone thief who dreams big; and an ambitious politician prepared to stoop low. Each is equally likely to have pulled the trigger. A riveting read the book was a bestseller of 2008.
In the last couple of years, adventure- detective stories have found a fresh voice in Kalpana Swaminathan. If Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes proved to be the inspiration for Detective Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi; it was Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple who provided inspiration for Aunt Lalli detective stories of this pediatrician- author. In Page 3 Murders (India Ink) we are introduced to Aunt Lalli,- sixtyish and silver-haired, she’s officially retired from the force, but is the last resort for tackling yet unsolved crimes. In this first outing Lalli finds out the real culprit among a group of eclectic guests assembled in an old and isolated house in Mumbai. An Indian version of the “old country house murder stories”, the novel was a hit. Swaminathan followed it with The Gardner’s Song (India Ink) wherein she investigates a gruesome murder that happened in an elevator. Lalli also appeared in a collection of short stories Cryptic Death. Apart from the Lalli stories, the author also has a psychological thriller to her credit- The Bougainvillea House (India Ink). It is the story of a doctor, Liaqat Khan, who investigates some mysterious deaths, which all seems connected with the foreboding Bougainvillea House and the hullabaloo that follows. This novel was a grand success.
One must also not forget Shashi Deshpande’s detective- adventure stories meant for children including The Summer Adventure, The Hidden Treasure and The Only Witness. Through Dinu, Minu, Polly and Ravi, Deshpande provides wholesome entertainment- and the author follows the Enid Blyton formula faithfully in narrating the stories. Rahul Srivastava also contributed to the detective genre with Murder on Kaandoha Hill, Conspiracy of the Warriors (Penguin, 2007). Aimed at young adults, the novel followed the adventures of Kabir, when he sets out to research on a little known tribal group, as part of a school project. Srivastava brings to the story murder, caste, religion, superstition, murky politics and more. Written with vivid descriptions, the book is gripping and was a success of 2007. Former Army officer S.M. Ghatak also published a collection of detective stories- spoofed on Sherlock Holmes titled The Case of the Parson’s Parrot and Other Stories, wherein Holmes had to pit his wits against the not so awesome- including rampaging mice, missing scarecrows etc. The book was a mild hit of 2002.
Dr. Sumit Ghosal’s In the Pink of Wealth (Frog Books, 2004) is heralded as the first medical thriller from India. Set in the murky world of money-minded Mumbai hospitals, the novel reads like a Robin Cook novel in all respects. Pune based lecturer, Sucharit Rajadhyaksha’s The Circle for Vice (Rupa, 2005) was called as “a thinking man’s thriller” by the media, in general. It starts with the murder investigation of a young research scholar in Pune and the attempted murder on his colleagues. The police suspect something in the research that could be the cause of the killing. One thing leads to another and the reader soon discovers that these modern day murders are inextricably linked with Kautilya’s “Arthashastra”. What the nexus is forms the plot of the novel. Published close on the heels of the success of Da Vinci Code, the novel was a success. Say’s Sucharit, who is presently working on his second novel, an espionage thriller surrounding the Indo- Pak relationship- “No doubt the success of Da Vinci Code helped my novel…but it was an inadvertent coincidence. I had long submitted the manuscript even before Da Vinci Code became a rage.” The Da Vinci Code also proved to be an inspiration for Ashwin Sanghi. His debut work The Rozabal Line (Tata- Westland, 2008) investigates the secret behind the tomb of Rozabal in Kashmir, which supposedly contains the body of Saint Yuz Asaf. The author exploits to fabulous success the theory of Jesus Christ having lived in India in this novel, and Rozabal Line proved to be one of the successes of 2008 in the realm of religious conspiracy thrillers.
After a long hiatus, (since the Seventies) legal thrillers are back in reckoning with Mumbai lawyer Armin Wandrewala’s lawyer Zerxes Avari series of crime novels. The Turning (1994) was a well crafted whodunit, surrounding the mysterious death of a couple, who married against their community’s interest. Zerxes Avari also returns in fine form in The Ceremony of Innocents (2009). Delhi lawyer Aditya Sudarshan also scored with A Nice Quiet Holiday, a cozy mystery which had a maverick Judge – Harish Shinde solving a murder. His protégée – lawyer Anant is his sidekick, and the narrator of the story. A good debut, the author packs a punch in this legal mystery.
The success of the films Lord of the Rings and Beowulf has certainly inspired many Indian authors to take up fantasy writing. Eighteen year old Sukrat Gupta’s The Forgotten Myth: Evolution (Trafford Publishing) is the first in a planned Evolution series. The author combines in the novels some snippets of history with fantasy to weave a good story. The work follows the exploits of Joseph D’Souja, an eighteen-year-old teen, who faces an uphill task to defeat Mahmud Ghazni, who has come from the past, attained magical powers and became the Dark King of the Magic World. This novel was published in 2007, and the author is now on work on its sequel, Damsel and Dulcimer. Gopal Mukerjee’s The Armageddon Mandala (Revenge Ink 2006) is another fantasy thriller to attain a bestseller status. The author, a Non-resident Indian, tells the story of a private eye, Allen Ginsberg, who finds himself trapped in a vortex of bizarre rituals and life-threatening ordeals- all in his efforts to prevent a planetary holocaust.
Samit Basu’s GameWorld Trilogy (Penguin, 2004- 07) consisting of The Simoqin Prophecies, The Manticore’s Secret and The Unwaba Revelations was yet another groundbreaking effort in fantasy writing. A “Starwars” style series, with a taut plot and tight narrative style, the GameWorld series proved to be a hit in India. Evan Wonderwood, a neo- fantasy thriller written Bengalee (by an author whose real identity is kept under wraps) is also on the anvil to be published in late 2009. Rupa will be bringing out later this year (the publishing house’s first venture into fantasy thriller writing) Legend of the Blood Samurai by twenty year old Ramkumar Deb. The novel is about an unusual friendship between a boy, Rammy and an alien, Smerd- and the effort by the alien to create a superhuman. Nithin Koshy from Kerala debuted with Atlas Reborn– a “Terminator” style sci- fi thriller set in United States (2007). It seems the market will be bright, at least for the next couple of years for fantasy thriller fiction.
Gaurav Suri & Hartosh S Bal, A Certain Ambiguity (Penguin, 2007) is billed as India’s first ‘mathematical thriller’. The plot spins around a character, Ravi Kapoor, whose mission in life is to fight an obscurantist administration that had persecuted his grandfather for his mathematical beliefs which militated against a regressive blasphemy law in a New Jersey town very early in the 20th century. So, Ravi’s journey from India to the US, chapter after chapter, is interspersed with puzzles – from those that are mere hobbies to those that are make-or-break situations- all of which have numerical underpinnings. Penguin has put lot of hope in this novel which hit the stands this year. Another youngster who has recently carved a neat niche in this realm of fiction is Nikhil Khanna. His debut work Day of the Dead, (Frog Books, 2006) though published in India, is however, set in United States and feature American and Mexican protagonists. It is an action oriented tale of a renegade, all set to kill a powerful United States Senator, who is the chief patron of the dug mafia in the United States.
The graphic detective novel is achieving popularity in the West- but only few in India have tried their hands at the same. Tejas Modak’s Private Eye Anonymous: The Art Gallery Case, about a “bumbling” sleuth named Anonymous, set in the bewildering world of fake paintings is the pioneer in this realm. Anonymous is called to protect the paintings of Van Gaur in an art gallery. Together with his sidekick Chikki, its upto Anonymous to protect the paintings from the clutches of conmen. An amusing and hilarious graphic novel.
Though these books have achieved successes, contributions by Indian authors remain sporadic and far between. It might be because there is a latent hesitation on the part of the Indian reader to accept crime thrillers as a part of Indian popular reading culture. Readers who enjoy Grisham, Sheldon and Tom Clancy are actually seeking fantasy. Maybe the whole charm of the thriller genre is that American or firangi setting, those foreign characters and lifestyle, that whole ‘other world’ that one loses oneself in for a few entertaining hours. Maybe by bringing it down, to Indian everyday reality, it robs the whole motivation of reading a thriller. Maybe what Indian readers want from Indian authors is one thing – ambitious, literary prose poems that win awards and accolades worldwide, doing us proud, while what they want from thrillers is an entirely different thing – exotic lifestyles and ‘those crazy American’ behavioural quirks’ and serial killers and madcap courtroom dramas, et al… The moment one writes an Indian thriller, it becomes too close to home for comfort. The fantasy-comfort factor is lost completely. In fact, some very fine crime novels authored by Indian writers are languishing for want of publishers. Save for a Penguin or a Rupa, no major publishing company has shown real interest in publishing crime fiction. Mumbai based medical representative K.V. Ramesh, himself a spy novel aficionado has knocked many a door to get his spy novel published, but as of date has found no takers. Says Ramesh, “I have written a trilogy of novels titled, Outer Circle, Middle Circle and Inner Circle, featuring an Indian counter- espionage agent, Ravi Varma. But without a Ludlumish sounding name, I find it difficult to attract publishers.” Same is the fate of Hari R. Krishna of Chennai who is hoping that his 6000 page fantasy thriller series Blood of Fire– modelled on The Lord of the Rings trilogy will find a suitable publisher one day. Even Shashi Tharoor could not break this jinx. His first literary effort, an adventure story for kids featuring “The Six Solvers” in The Solvers on the Trail (the first in a planned series modelled on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series) hit the rock. Educationist Matthew Panmkat who also tried to bring out a desi Enid Blyton series couldn’t find any publisher for his adventure books, save for the first in the planned series Rony and the Mystery of the Missing Kids. Former Malayalam actor and cartoonist Thomas Burleigh Kurushingal is busy with his suspense thriller The Worm, and is keeping his fingers crossed that a suitable publisher will evince interest in the same.
That said, it must also be submitted that Indian Crime Writing in English recently received a much needed boost through Blaft Publishers. Blaft, owned by a crime fiction aficionado Rajesh Khanna, recently published an anthology of Tamil crime fiction short stories translated into English. The work titled Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction was huge succeess. The Indian market is also looking forward to the fate of prolific Hindi pulp fiction novelist- Surender Mohan Pathak’s crime caper Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti (translated to The Rs 65 Lakh Heist) would fare in the Indian maket. It must be confessed that a lot is riding on the success of this translated novel.
Ashok Banker, famed author and the pioneer in modern crime fiction in India also is hopeful of a fruitful innings of crime fiction in English in India. In an interview with the author, Banker remarked- “Indian publishers would love to publish more crime fiction–especially by Indian authors. There is a substantial market for it today. The problem is that there is very little really good crime writing in this country. It’s also a myth that you need to be a ‘name’ to get published–it’s actually easier for an unknown author to get a good book published, than for an established author to get a mediocre book published…the day an Indian author, preferably a complete unknown, writes a really good crime thriller, trust me, it will be published and sell decently well–not brilliantly because the market isn’t that big and may never be that big for crime fiction here, but decently enough to be counted a success.”
But how far, will these books be accepted by the Indian reader? Only with more patronage and a conscientious effort on the part of the Indian reader to buy and read books written by Indian authors will Indian thriller writing in English, really achieve the much needed popularity and recognition it truly deserves.