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 www.rebeccasreads.com and www.newmysteryreader.com – wherein he reviews the latest and best in mysteries.
the way we know it”
And I am NOT raving about The Da Vinci Code. I am speaking about The Thomas Document, by Hugh Gantzer written in 1977. Names like Shyam Dave, Sucharit Rajadhyaksha, K.P. Bahadur seldom cross ones mind when we discuss Indian Writing in English. Its always Salman Rushdie, Chetan Bhagat or Arundhati Roy that comes to mind and we generally tend to go for John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon or Jeffrey Archer as far as mysteries and thrillers are concerned. Though Indian thriller writing commands a small but steadfast readership, most Indian authors remain unknown and more often than not second editions of their books are not available. At the same time English author H.R.F. Keating with his Inspector Ghote Series of police procedurals set in Mumbai; Irish author Paul Mann’s lawyer George Sansi series of thrillers set in Goa, and more recently the Detective Vish Puri “Most Private Investigator” series of novels by British author Tarquin Hall achieves tremendous successes in the West. Why do we tend to relegate to second class our mystery and thriller authors?
While researching this article, I found information woefully inadequate and even the Net couldn’t come to my rescue. This is surprising, because detective and mystery writing traces its origin in India itself. Sudraka’s Mricchakatika, written in the 1st Century AD, about the effect of a false alibi on a trial, is the recognized first detective fiction work in the World . Even before Mricchakatika, many of the Jataka Tales (fables) featured stories of Buddha as lawyer, judge and investigator and Buddha’s concept of justice, and were narrated in the modern day whodunit style.
The first modern day thriller by an Indian writer was Partha Chatterjee’s Princely Imposter? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal written in 1933. Loosely based on Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre and the true-life ‘Bhawal case’ where a person long thought dead miraculously return to claim a stake in the family property culminating in an exciting courtroom drama, was bestseller when it was published in 1933. Originally published in Bengali, the English translated version came a few years later, and the same has run into numerous editions.
In 1940, S.K. Chettur stunned the Indian detective writing with Bombay Murder; while his brother G.K. Chettur tasted success with Ghost City. However, the same are no longer available in print.
However, till the Sixties, there was not much takers for detective or thriller writing in India. But in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when Ian Fleming’s James Bond series and novels of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series began to capture the Indian market, some of our desi authors also tried their hands in pulp fiction. The pioneer in this realm was Hugh Gantzer, now more renowned as travel author and author of the bestseller The Year Before Sunset. Gantzer had just retired as Judge Advocate from the Indian Navy, and seeing the popularity that James Bond commanded in India, tried to create the Indian version of Bond. Under the pseudonym Shyam Dave, Hugh Gantzer together with his wife Colleen, created India’s first super spy, Jawaharlal Atim Zadu- JAZ, and his girlfriend Sonia. Zadu detested guns, drank Indian whiskey, was an expert in kalarippayat (a martial art form of Kerala, India), a Tantrist, and spoke a number of Indian languages. But then he, too, was engaged in rescuing India when it teetered on the edge of assorted disasters. Zadu was one cool guy, suave and glamourous, Bond-ish in style. For a decade from the early Seventies, Zadu appeared in a series of novels including The Guru Docket, The Brian Drain Docket, The Isaac Docket (Orient Paperbacks) etc. At the same time Hugh Gantzer in his own name wrote another series of political thrillers featuring Netto. Netto was the antithesis of Zadu in all respects. He was quiet, unassuming and used more of brain than brawn in tackling sensitive issues. In the first of the series Operation Overkill (Orient Paperbacks, 1973) Netto was involved in bringing to book four Indian Naval officers who assassinated disparate leaders in order to create chaos in the country, forcing the government to declare military rule. The second was The President’s Ransom (Orient Paperbacks, 1973) in which the Director of Internal Security had the President kidnapped just before the visit of the US President to India, so that the United Front Government would fall and his backers … unidentified … could take over. Interestingly The President’s Ransom mentioned a paper called “Midday” long before the real “Midday” was launched. The authors also predicted India being ruled by a coalition government, called “The United Front”, many years in advance of coalition politics becoming a Union reality. The third and last in the Netto series was The Thomas Document (Orient Paperback 1977), a work, which is truly a forerunner to The Da Vinci Code in all respects. The novel centered on a secret document written by St. Thomas, the Apostle of Christ, the contents of which, if released would wreck the faith of millions, and strike at the very root of all Christian teaching. It is up to Netto to find the document, before the Nation falls into religious disharmony. However, after this book, Ganzter stopped the Netto series. The highlight of the Netto- Zadu series was that though the authors were inspired by Ian Fleming and other spy novelists of the West, the novels were not parodies, and were totally Indian in all respects.
A couple of other authors also tried to emulate the James Bond formula in India, but met with little success. The only exception might be Dara: The Indian James Bond and Prince of Spies created by Kamini Uppal. The stories, told in comic form were published by the erstwhile Indrajal Comics (1988- 1990). Comics included The Enemy Agent, Sparks of Treason, Jaws of Treachery etc. Dara was both brainy and brawny and an avid mountain climber. In his real life, Dara was Rana Bikram Bir Singh, who enjoyed meditation and an occasional glass of orange juice. However, no further Dara works were published since the demise of Indrajal in 1990.
During the same period, (in the Sixties and Seventies), some authors also tried to emulate the Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series of courtroom dramas. The pioneer in this realm was P. Parameswaran Nair of Trivandrum. Inspired by the Perry Mason mysteries, which the author himself is quick to admit, Parameswaran Nair wrote a series of mysteries featuring a police officer- lawyer duo of Sam Laxter and Stewart Sangster. The novels which were published between the late Sixties and the early Eighties followed a stereo formula. A crime is committed, Laxter makes an arrest, the criminal lawyer Stewart Sangster comes to the rescue of the accused, proving that Laxter was wrong and hasty in making the arrest, and gets the accused off. Laxter reinvestigates and finally the real culprit is brought to the dock. Being locally published, the books didn’t made much of an impact outside Kerala. In The Case of the Traveling Toxin (Karmabhoomi Press, 1977), the author presented a strange case where a poison powder, send by post results in the death of the addressee. Though the author doesn’t use the phrase “Anthrax”- it seems that the fiction turned a reality 25 years later, when incidents of Anthrax poisoning through post created havoc in the country. In The Case of the Broken Belt (Karmabhoomi Press, 1983) the last of the series, the author did a ‘reverse Sherlock Holmes’- instead of killing of the character, the author decided that the character should kill the author. Nair presented himself as one of the characters, and asks Laxter whether he can solve the crime the author had committed- he just says that he has committed a crime- what, where, who, why- etc., Laxter will have to find it out and prove it. Laxter succeeds- but before he can arrest Parameswaran Nair (the character) he kills himself. Though most books feature heavy courtroom action, the same borders on ludicrousness. Other novels in the series included The Case of the Spookish Spouse, Case of the Innocent Accomplice etc. However, poor marketing, insipid printing, and a bland narrative style had affected the popularity of the works. Yet, as the creator of the first modern day legal thrillers from India, Parameswaran Nair deserves mention herein.
Lawyer Harsh Bahadur of Delhi also wrote a Perry Mason pastiche in 1977 titled The Case of the Sprightly Widow (Sterling Paperbacks, 1977). It was an obvious rip-off featuring advocate S.H. Jung, a Della Street Secretary, Nina Sinha and a detective ala Paul Drake, Peter Aylmer. The work, a murder mystery, was rich in courtroom action. Renowned historian K.P. Bahadur’s contribution to thriller writing was The Case of the Poisoned Cat and Murder in the Delhi Mail, (Sterling Paperbacks 1974- 76) both featuring lawyer- detective Kumar. Though the protagonist is a lawyer, both books were prototypes of the popular Agatha Christie mysteries, and Murder in the Delhi Mail, is truly the desi version of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Tamil Author Devan’s Justice Jagannatan originally written in Tamil was recently translated to English by Lakshmi Venketaraman. A regular courtroom drama, the novel commanded a good readership in Tamil Nadu.
Shakuntala Devi, renowned mathematician had tried her luck in fiction writing also. Her novel The Perfect Murder (Orient Paperbacks, 1976) is a tense and solid read wherein a criminal lawyer plans the perfect murder. The finesse of style of attention to detail is reminiscent of the early Fredrick Forsyth novels. Likewise E.N. Mangat Rai, a retired IAS Officer, had written a wonderful whodunit The Lalru Murders (Orient Paperbacks, 1973), set in the background of a drug related murder case. But all these novels also have been relegated to out-of-print category. Gujarat based Shakti Sahitya Mandir had brought out a murder mystery titled Murder (1972) featuring ace detective Lal. Written by Sarojben Shah, the novel revolved around the kidnapping of an eminent Indian scientist by Pakistanis, and the hullabaloo that follows. With convoluted sex and less action otherwise the novel is a dud…and it is no wonder why a reprint did not appear.
The Indo- Pak War and the spirit of nationalism that followed, also spurned a series of military action thrillers. Squadron Leader Amarjeet Kullar wrote Shadow of the Dragon and The Alpertol Affair (Orient Paperbacks, Late Sixties), while journalist Dilip Hiro authored A Triangular View (Orient Paperbacks, 1969). Like Kullar himself, the author’s series protagonist was a courageous Air force pilot Mark Ray. In The Shadow of the Dragon, Mark Ray is caught in the midst of an international conspiracy which involves tampering with and scuttling with the air force of many European and Asia countries. The exploits of Mark Ray continued further in The Alpertol Affair, another spy thriller.
During the Sixties and Seventies adventure- detective stories also had a good run. Prime contributors in this realm were two literary giants of Bengali literature Saradindu Bandhopadhyay with his Byomkesh Bakshi series of detective thrillers and Satyajit Ray with his charismatic Detective Feluda series. Bandhopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi first hit the stands in 1932 and by the Fifties and Sixties it had loyal following, and the first English translated version of the stories also hit the bookshops during this period. In The Menagerie Byomkesh cracks a strange case involving broken motor parts, a seemingly natural death and the peculiar inhabitants of Golap Colony who seem capable of doing just about anything to safeguard the secrets of their tainted pasts. In The Jewel Case he investigates the mysterious disappearance of a priceless necklace, while in The Will That Vanished he solves a baffling riddle to fulfill the last wish of a close friend. And in The Quills of the Porcupine, the shrewd detective is in his element as he expertly foils the sinister plans of a ruthless opportunist. Sreejata Guha recently translated the Byomkesh Bakshi series to English titled The Menagerie & Other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries. (2006, Penguin).
Satyajit Ray wrote a total of thirty-five Feluda stories, (between 1965 and 1992) featuring the master sleuth Pradosh C Mitter, his assistant Topshe, and Lalmohan Babu alias Jatayu, a bumbling writer of crime fiction. The locales range from Gangtok and Varanasi to Jaisalmer and Ellora, apart from Feluda’s home town of Calcutta. The plots involve murder, intrigue and adventure, narrated in a racy, humorous style. All of this makes for enormously entertaining fare. In 2000 Penguin brought out in two volumes the Complete Adventures of Feluda translated from the Bengali by Gopa Majumdar and Chitrita Bannerji. Although both Ray and Bandhopadhyay largely modelled their creations on Sherlock Holmes, Feluda and Bakshi had a dedicated following among three generations of readers.
To be continued…
1. Joan Cook Wilson, ‘Stories of Crime and Detection: Using the Mystery Formula as an Introduction to Asian Literatures and the Cultures,’ Education About Asia 6/1 (2001), 1. See generally, Tabish Khair, “Indian Pulp Fiction in English: A Preliminary Overview from Dutt to De,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 43/3 (2008) 59; Amrita Dutta, ‘The Missing Plot”, The Indian Express (September 21, 2008)
2. Adventure comics in English have comparatively sold well in India. In the Seventies Indrajal Comics also published Bahadur: a former dacoit who amended his ways to become the saviour of the meek. Originally created by Abid Surti, a plethora of Bahadur stories were written by Jagjit Uppal, husband of the aforementioned Kamini Uppal. In the early Eighties, famed director Gulzar introduced the Amitabh Bachchan comics, featuring the superstar as a masked super hero Supremo- who was a Bollywood actor during day and a crime fighter at night. Likewise Bharat and Shalan Savur created Sunny: The Super Sleuth- a super hero who was Sunil Gavaskar, ace cricketer during daytime and the terror of hoodlums in his other avatar. Both Supremo and Sunny were short-lived. In the late Eighties Anupam Sinha created Private Detective Kapil for the short lived Chitra Bharati Kathamala Comics. In the Nineties Diamond Comics created many an Indian super hero including Captain Vyom (the peacekeeper of the space), Fauladi Singh (who regularly protects the Earth from alien invasions), Shaktiman (desi Superman), Mahabalai Shaka (desi Tarzan), Dynamite (a revolutionary patriot, engaged in protecting India from foreign invasion) and Agniputra- Abhay (who fights crime with the state of the art technology, and with a wee bit of help from the Almighty). Raj Comics also have had a steady output of superhero comics. Raj is to Indian comics, what DC is to United States. Series super heroes includes Super Commando Dhruva, (created by Anupam Sinha, Dhruva is a private investigator who has the ability to talk with animals), Inspector Steel (desi Robocop), Doga (a vigilante and saviour of the poor and downtrodden), Nagraj (desi Snakeyes), Tiranga (India’s own Captain America), Bheriya (a wolf man), Parmanu (Atomic powered wonder man) etc. Soon cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and actress Priyanka Chopra will find their super hero avatars in Virgin Comics.