Hello and welcome to Episode 52 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.
Today, in the #FiveDesiFaves segment, we have Vaseem Khan who has a new novel out titled The Dying Day (UK now; US in 2022.) He’s sharing his five favorite desi crime fiction works from these writers: Aravind Adiga, Abir Mukherjee, Sujata Massey, Gregory David Roberts, and Khushwant Singh.
The transcript of this segment is also up on the website.
#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH VASEEM KHAN — INTRODUCTION
Vaseem Khan is the author of two crime series set in India, the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 1950s Bombay. His first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a Times bestseller, now translated into fifteen languages. The second in the series won the Shamus Award in the US. In 2018, he was awarded the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Award for Literature. Vaseem was born in England, but spent a decade working in India. In 2021, Midnight at Malabar House won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, the world’s premier award for historical crime fiction.
His latest book is The Dying Day (UK now; US in 2022.) about the theft of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society, and the murders that follow. When this treasure vanishes, the man charged with its care, British scholar and war hero, John Healy, also disappears. The case lands on Inspector Persis Wadia’s desk. Uncovering a series of complex riddles written in verse, Persis—together with English forensic scientist, Archie Blackfinch—is soon on the trail. Then they discover the first body. As the death toll mounts, it becomes evident that someone else is also pursuing this priceless artifact and will stop at nothing to possess it. This second thriller in the Malabar House series pits Persis, once again, against her peers, a changing India, and an evil of limitless intent.
Vaseem also runs a popular podcast with fellow crime fiction writer, Abir Mukherjee, called Red Hot Chilli Writers. There’s a link in the transcript on the website and you should go listen to it. They’re funny, smart, and have a lot of great insights.
The transcript of this episode is on the website at desibooks.co.
And now, here’s Vaseem Khan with his #FiveDesiFaves.
#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH VASEEM KHAN
Hi there. I’m Vaseem Khan and I’m a crime author. Crime fiction is the most popular literary genre in the world, but it’s only recently that authors from South Asian backgrounds have made their mark. As one of the earliest published among the current crop of such writers, I feel a bit like a godfather, though I haven’t ordered a horse’s head to be put into anyone’s bed yet. Earlier this year, my historical crime novel Midnight at Malabar House won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, the world’s most prestigious prize for historical crime fiction. That accolade marked a thirty-year journey from the time I submitted my first novel to an agent, aged seventeen. I thought that book would give me a life of fame and riches . . . there was only one small problem. The book was rubbish. It would be twenty more years before my first novel was published, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, which went on to become a Times bestseller, published around the world, and set the foundation for my career. Two years ago, I launched a podcast with fellow historical crime writer, Abir Mukherjee, called the Red Hot Chilli Writers. It is now one of the most popular crime fiction podcasts in the UK. Who would have thought two British Asian crime writers would be able to do that?
The five books I’ve selected for #FiveDesiFaves reflect my author journey. They are both crime novels and crime novels that also straddle literary fiction. They’re books that have inspired me and my work and I’m delighted to share them with you.
- The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
- A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
- The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
- Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
- Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
Crime fiction writer Vaseem Khan shares his #FiveDesiFaves of crime fiction by Aravind Adiga, Abir Mukherjee, Sujata Massey, Gregory David Roberts, and Khushwant Singh. @DesiBooksTweet
My first choice is The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga. Winner of the 2008 Booker Prize; The White Tiger is framed as a narrative letter written by the novel’s protagonist Balram Halwai. Halwai has made his way up from being a lowly chauffeur to running his own IT firm. That journey—a journey that involves various morally questionable acts—forms the heart of the novel. The book is a satire, Adiga’s vehicle for critiquing the ‘new’ India. Through Halwai, he takes aim at the social prejudices, economic inequalities, and sacred cows that combine to keep those not born to prosperity on the subcontinent in a position of subservience.
For me, The White Tiger mirrored my own ambitions with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, the first in my Baby Ganesh Agency series. I lived for a decade in India during my twenties when the country was making its journey from being a largely pre-industrial economy to the economic juggernaut it is today. The book introduces us to a very rigid and honest detective from the Mumbai police service, a man who is forced to retire in his late forties, but continues to pursue the cause of justice. My aim with this book, like Adiga, was to document the India that I observed first hand, both the light and the dark. In Western fiction, India is often mythologized, turned into a land of all singing, all dancing, happy-go-lucky beggars, swamis, and snake charmers. The reality is somewhere in between. My protagonist, Chopra, inherits a one year old baby elephant, a device I use as a symbol for this in-between India, a land of ancient mythologies but also modern hard realities. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was listed by the Sunday Times as one of the forty best crime novels published between 2015 and 2020 and I do hope you get a chance to read it.
Vaseem Khan discusses Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger as an early inspiration for his own crime fiction in #FiveDesiFaves. @DesiBooksTweet
My second choice is A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee, the award-winning first novel in a series set in 1920s Calcutta. The protagonists are English policeman, Captain Sam Wyndham, and his Bengali sidekick, Surindranath Banerjee, investigating the murder of a Scotsman in the wrong part of town of the then Imperial capital. A Rising Man perfectly captures not only the atmosphere of a humid, tumultuous Calcutta, but also the machinations of the Raj as it struggles with the Indian fight for Independence.
This book came out a year after my own debut. Once I discovered that Abir was a fellow Londoner, I reached out to him. We became friends, and his novels inspired me to write my second series, the Malabar House books, set in Bombay in the early 1950s. Till date, we remain the only two non-white writers to have ever won the CWA Historical Dagger.
The first of those novels, Midnight at Malabar House, opens on New Year’s Eve 1949, just two years after Independence, the horrors of Partition, and the assassination of Gandhi. India is still trying to work out what sort of democracy it is going to be. Social, political, and religious turmoil is rife in the country.
As India celebrates the arrival of this momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia, the only woman on the force, is summoned to the Bombay home of English diplomat Sir James Herriot. Herriot has been murdered. Soon, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself leading an investigation that becomes more political by the second.
Historical fiction allows us to take a lens to past events and examine them with our modern sensibilities and the benefit of hindsight. A Rising Man and Midnight at Malabar House both investigate the changing relationship between India and the West. Read in tandem, the two books give an insight into the turbulent last decades of the Raj and the immediate aftermath of the British leaving India.
Abir Mukherjee, a fellow Londoner and crime fiction writer, inspired my Malabar House series, says Vaseem Khan in #FiveDesiFaves. @DesiBooksTweet
My third choice is The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, another historical crime novel, this time set in Bombay of the 1920s. The lead character, Perveen Mistry, qualifies as one of India’s first female lawyers and joins her father’s law firm. When one of the firm’s clients passes away, leaving behind three widows, Perveen investigates.
This book particularly appeals to me because the lead character, in many ways, mirrors the lead of my own Malabar House series. Both are Parsees, both are singular women, fierce, committed, and intelligent.
My lead, Persis, is India’s first female police detective. Like Massey, I chose to write her as a way to give voice to women of that era who were denied the right to work in professions considered to be male-only domains. As the only woman in the Bombay police, she encounters entrenched opposition. But she’s smart and stubborn and won’t be stopped!
The two books celebrate female pioneers on the subcontinent. Indian society has a reputation for being intensely patriarchal. Even now many women struggle to enjoy the same rights that women in other countries take for granted. Persis, and Sujata Massey’s lead, Perveen, are women who refuse to toe the line.
“[Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill] particularly appeals to me because the lead character, in many ways, mirrors the lead of my own Malabar House series.” ~Vaseem Khan #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooksTweet
My fourth choice is not a traditional crime novel, though a convicted criminal lies at its heart. I have chosen Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. In 1978, Roberts was given a nineteen year sentence in his native Australia after being convicted of a series of armed robberies. In July 1980, he escaped from Victoria’s Pentridge Prison and ended up in India where he remained one of Australia’s most wanted men for the next decade.
The book, first published in 2003, mirrors this narrative, as it follows a man named Lindsay, a convicted bank robber who escapes prison and flees to Mumbai. The novel then describes his subsequent adventures in the country, including various escapades on the wrong side of the law.
I read this book after having lived, like Roberts, in Mumbai for a decade. I was immediately struck by the way that Roberts manages to capture the incredible vivacity of life in the city, and the descriptions of the protagonist adapting to the culture shock he experiences. I went through something similar, having ventured to Mumbai aged twenty-three, with no prior experience of the country. Roberts introduces us to a cross-section of Mumbai’s population, particularly at the lower end of the social scale. A particularly poignant section of the novel sees our protagonist living in one of the city’s infamous slums. I try and capture the essence of life in a Mumbai slum in a chapter in The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra and you could say it was inspired partly by Shantaram.
At its heart, this novel is about the journey that one man makes, spiritually and emotionally. Roberts clearly believes in redemption and this book is his thinly-disguised attempt at informing us that this is something he has sought to achieve. Today Shantaram remains one of those landmark novels that has maintained its popularity over time, a touchstone for many travelers to the subcontinent.
“At its heart, [Shantaram] is about the journey that one man makes, spiritually and emotionally. Roberts clearly believes in redemption . . .” ~Vaseem Khan #FiveDesiFaves. @DesiBooksTweet
My final choice is revered Indian novelist Khushwant Singh’s most famous work Train to Pakistan, published back in 1956. The novel is set during Partition in the fictional village of Mano Majra, on the border between Pakistan and India. The village is populated by Muslims and Sikhs, who have lived together peacefully for generations. But when rumors begin to trickle in of atrocities being committed in neighboring villages the seeds of trouble are sown.
In due course, a train arrives from Pakistan, loaded with corpses. This becomes the catalyst for the local police to force Muslims to leave for Pakistan, ostensibly for their own safety. They are housed in a refugee camp overnight awaiting a train to Pakistan. But then Sikh agitators arrive, demanding that the remaining villagers pick up their swords and come with them to seek vengeance.
What sets Khushwant Singh’s novel above other attempts to depict the horror of Partition is his focus on the individual. We see an understanding of human motivations, the murkiness of decisions made when fear, rumor, and peer pressure combine. We are never in any doubt that the horrific events that he depicts are a representation of actual incidents.
Today, the work is just as relevant. India and Pakistan continue to rattle sabers at one another. The seeds of this strife were sown during those short years around 1947 when the country was engulfed in something akin to madness. That sense of madness is one I return to in my Malabar House series, most notably in Midnight at Malabar House, where the Partition atrocities play a key element in the plot.
“What sets Khushwant Singh’s novel [Train to Pakistan] above other attempts to depict the horror of Partition is his focus on the individual. We see an understanding of human motivations . . .” ~Vaseem Khan #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooksTweet
I’ll end by thanking you for listening. I hope you get a chance to read these books and, indeed, my own, should they tickle your fancy. My latest novel is called The Dying Day (UK now; US in 2022.), the second book in the Malabar House series. The plot of the novel centers around the theft of the 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, a real-life priceless treasure that has been stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society of Mumbai for almost two hundred years. When the Society’s curator, an Englishman, disappears at the same time, with only coded riddles left in his wake, bodies soon begin to pile up. The book has been described as ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Partition India.’
And finally a big thank you to Jenny Bhatt for inviting me onto Desi Books and for all her energy and hard work in promoting South Asian fiction.
Crime fiction writer Vaseem Khan shares his #FiveDesiFaves of crime fiction by Aravind Adiga, Abir Mukherjee, Sujata Massey, Gregory David Roberts, and Khushwant Singh. @DesiBooks @DesiBooksTweet
You’ve been listening to episode 52 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #FiveDesiFaves segment was from Vaseem Khan who has a new crime fiction novel out titled The Dying Day (UK now; US in 2022.) He shared his five favorite desi crime fiction works. The transcript is also up on the website at desibooks.co.
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