#DesiBooks10QA: Harini Nagendra on the empowering fellowship of the crime-writing community

About the author

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India, and the author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future. She received a 2013 Elinor Ostrom Senior Scholar Award and a 2007 Cozzarelli Prize with Elinor Ostrom from the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences for research on sustainability. The Bangalore Detectives Clubthe first book in the Detective Kaveri mysteries, is her first novel. She lives in Bangalore, India.

About the book

The Bangalore Detectives Club is the first in a crime series set in 1920s Bangalore, featuring sari-wearing detective Kaveri and her husband Ramu. When clever, headstrong Kaveri moves to Bangalore to marry handsome young doctor Ramu, she’s resigned herself to a quiet life. But all that changes the night of the party at the Century Club, where she escapes to the garden for some peace and quiet—and instead spots an uninvited guest in the shadows.

Half an hour later, the party turns into a murder scene. When a vulnerable woman is connected to the crime, Kaveri becomes determined to save her and launches a private investigation to find the killer, tracing his steps from an illustrious brothel to an Englishman’s mansion. She soon finds that sleuthing in a sari isn’t as hard as it seems when you have a talent for mathematics, a head for logic, and a doctor for a husband . . . And she’s going to need them all as the case leads her deeper into a hotbed of danger, sedition, and intrigue in Bangalore’s darkest alleyways.

The Bangalore Detectives Club, Harini Nagendra’s debut novel, is the first in the Detective Kaveri mysteries, and about a sari-clad sleuth in 1920s India. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

As far as I can remember, I wanted to hear stories and to tell some of my own in turn. It’s difficult to think of a time I didn’t want to be a writer. A desi book that made a deep impression on me is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book, Arranged Marriage. When I first went to California, in 1996, I stumbled across a copy of the book in the local public library, and it blew my mind. The stories of desi women and the transformations they go through as they seek to reclaim their lives from the definitions imposed on them by others were so familiar as I knew so many women with similar tales (don’t we all?) And I loved the way she usually ended on a positive note.

“When I first went to California, in 1996, I stumbled across [Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni] in the local public library, and it blew my mind.” ~Harini Nagendra on one of the desi books that influenced her. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

It’s a mix of three series: the Wyndham & Banerjee series by Abir Mukherjee set in twentieth century colonial Kolkata; the Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey set in colonial Bombay; and the Malabar House series by Vaseem Khan also set in Bombay but just after India gained independence.

The themes these books cover, from colonialism to oppression and women’s empowerment, are very close to my heart, and The Bangalore Detectives Club engages closely with these issues, in a comparable time and context of 1920s Bangalore.

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

I love reading fantasy that is rooted in old and established fables and legends, but subverts them to interrogate modern society. There is a lot of Indian fantasy based on Indian epics these days, and getting better all the time. But I’m reading Russian-themed fantasy tales that take on Baba Yaga, and I love them so much. I would love to see a desi book that takes on the Jataka Tales or the Panchatantra, or so many of the childhood stories we grew up with in India—going beyond the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—and interrogates and flips societal positions.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

Sujata Massey’s The Bombay Prince. I have loved her books since her first Rei Shimura series, set in Japan. I love the way she makes colonial India come alive in her depictions of Perveen Mistry, a Parsi lawyer making her way in a male-dominated world, using the fact that as a woman she can penetrate the worlds of purdah women from traditional homes, resolving injustice and solving crimes. The Bombay Prince is her latest book, and I have been itching to read it. But I had a book deadline for my second Kaveri and Ramu book looming. Now that this book is off my desk, I can’t wait to get reacquainted with Perveen in her latest set of adventures. This one is set during a very controversial visit of Prince Edward to Bombay in November 1921, which is just a few months after events of my book, The Bangalore Detectives Club, in Bangalore. The contrast between the two settings of Massey’s book and mine, between British India (Bombay) and the Indian princely state setting (Bangalore) is also especially fascinating for me.

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

Shivaram Karanth’s Mookajjiya Kanasugalu or The Dreams of Mookajji, Voiceless Grandmother.

I was in college when I found and bought the English translation for five rupees from a sidewalk bookseller sitting under a gorgeous rain tree in Jayanagar, in Bangalore. Everyone thinks Mookajji is voiceless, and ignores her. Everyone, except for her young grandson, the only person to whom she speaks. Eighty years old, Mookajji is a forward-thinking woman, who describes her dreams of the supernatural to her grandson, interpreting them to question stifling tradition.

Written in 1968 by one of the best known Kannada writers of all times, the book won the very prestigious Jnanapith award in 1977, but is little spoken of these days. I loved the book because it overturned ideas of older, uneducated women as being simple, set in their ways, and to be ignored. It is especially relevant in today’s times when religious fundamentalism is on the rise across the world—in India, the US, and so many other countries. I wish this book was better known.

“I loved [Shivaram Karanth’s The Dreams of Mookajji] because it overturned ideas of older, uneducated women as being simple, set in their ways, and to be ignored.” ~Harini Nagendra on a fave desi book. #DB10QA @DesiBooks

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

That every ‘good’ scene needs the right amount of conflict. I like to write happy scenes and to imagine a world where my main characters mostly get along and cooperate to solve problems. But my editor pointed out that some of the scenes in my book would be more interesting if I introduced a bit of tension between the protagonists, even those on the same side. And she was absolutely right, as I realized when I read another book with an editorial eye rather than a reader’s eye and found I was getting bored in a couple of places. This has got me thinking about why I tend to dislike conflict and I find it interesting how writing helps us shine a mirror on our own selves.

#writingtip from Harini Nagendra: “That every ‘good’ scene needs the right amount of conflict […] writing helps us shine a mirror on our own selves.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

Deadlines! As a career academic who routinely writes research papers and newspaper columns, I work best to deadlines. Writing the complete first draft of Book 1 in my series was the hardest because I had no external deadline. Once I had that done, completing revisions on time was much easier. By then, I had my agent and then my publishers, who needed the manuscript turned in by a specific time.

Writing Book 2 was difficult for a very different reason as my mother was unwell. It was very challenging for me to get the mental space to write (fortunately, she’s much better now.) But deadlines helped, once again. I hate backing out of anything I commit to and that kept me going. I do need copious amounts of tea to write. Good old-fashioned Indian chai, with lots of milk and sugar—which my husband keeps me well-supplied with—and that keeps me fueled.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

The day I heard that the New York Times had featured The Bangalore Detectives Club was unforgettable. But true literary success? I’d say my personal favorite moment was when my daughter, who had read all the previous drafts of my book, grabbed the print copy and buried herself in it, refusing to talk to me until she finished it. If I can pull her into a book that I created from scratch, that’s success for me.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

The fellowship of the crime-writing community has been incredible. I was thrilled to have some of my favorite authors write blurbs for me: Catriona McPherson and Rhys Bowen, whose books I have loved for so long, as well as Sujata Massey, Vaseem Khan, Abir Mukherjee, and so many others. Despite never having met in person, Catriona reached out and nudged me, asking if I wanted her to read an advance copy (of course I did!) and introducing me to other authors like Susanne Calkins and Victoria Thompson.

The Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America online communities have been hugely supportive as well, providing insightful writerly and marketing advice. And the Crime Writers of Color group has been a terrific place to learn, with special thanks to Gigi Pandian, one of the founders, who recommended that I join. The group discusses many aspects of writing, but also talks about how to navigate past issues of racism and structural discrimination against writers of color. I’d highly recommend other desi crime writers join all three groups.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

“..that, across all times, a small handful of determined women have always defied societal expectations to thrive and bring about change.” ~Harini Nagendra on reader takeaways from her novel, The Bangalore Detectives Club #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

My main character, Mrs. Kaveri Murthy, is a newly-married nineteen-year-old woman who loves swimming and detective mysteries, and dreams of being a mathematician. But her mother-in-law disapproves, believing that too much education makes a woman’s brain go soft. Kaveri is not easily deflected from her path and ends up not only studying mathematics but also educating other women who lack the opportunity. I’d like my readers to end the book knowing that, across all times, a small handful of determined women have always defied societal expectations to thrive and bring about change. In doing so, they made the world a better place for those of us who came after.

Harini Nagendra has a debut novel out, The Bangalore Detectives Club. More details at her website.

The Bangalore Detectives Club, Harini Nagendra’s debut novel, is the first in the Detective Kaveri mysteries, and about a sari-clad sleuth in 1920s India. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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