Never say no to noir
The Jaipur literary festival saw the launch of the Crime Writers Association of South Asia. Crime writing is certainly picking up in India, says Smitha Verma
Write to thrill: (From top) Authors Anita Nair, Kishwar Desai, Piyush Jha, Zac O'Yeah and Swati Kaushal
When Bangalore-based author Anita Nair first thought of Inspector Gowda as a character, she didn't really believe that he was going to stick around for long. But the middle-aged cop is here to stay — and Nair isn't complaining. The character from her 2012 book Cut Like A Wound is almost a cult figure today.
"I hadn't anticipated that Inspector Gowda would get such a huge reception from my readers," says Nair, author of such critically acclaimed novels as Ladies Coupe, The Better Man and Mistress. The cop, created at a time when Nair wanted to explore new subjects, is going to figure in her forthcoming books.
It's the season of noir — a crime fiction genre known for its black shades. Not surprisingly, at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2014, one of the popular sections of discussion was "Crime and Punishment" under which a host of sessions dealt with topics ranging from writing on financial crime to murder mysteries. The five-day event also saw the launch of the Crime Writers Association of South Asia, which will organise a two-day literary meet, in association with its UK counterpart, in September in Delhi.
Namita Gokhale, co-director of JLF and a founder member of the association, stresses that the platform will "consolidate" writing under the crime segment. "The move is to bring together published authors, new writers, and publishers from South Asia to develop the genre," Gokhale says.
The category includes sub-genres such as whodunits, financial crimes and spy thrillers. "It has been one of the largest selling genres for publishers worldwide for a long time. But the Indian crime writing scene has picked up only now," says Anurima Roy, senior manager, marketing and publicity, Bloomsbury India. The last two years have seen some successful debuts, new imprints and writers from different fields exploring this genre.
Last month, Penguin India launched its new imprint Blue Salt devoted entirely to Bollywood crime. The imprint, headed by S. Hussain Zaidi, the author of Dongri to Dubai, seeks to bring out titles that will reflect the best of both crime writing and Bollywood. It is already out with its first book — Ghalib Danger by filmmaker Neeraj Pandey, the director of A Wednesday and Special 26.
Women writers including Madhulika Liddle, Swati Kaushal and Kalpana Swaminathan have created a niche readership with their whodunit series. Industrialist Raj Kundra's book How Not to Make Money, a financial thriller set in London, was one of the most talked of books under the "Crime and Punishment" series at JLF. Banker Ravi Subramaniam has a series of crime novels set in the banking world while the crime series of Zac O'Yeah and Piyush Jha have a dedicated fan following.
What took the genre so long to make its presence felt in India? "It's probably the preoccupation with more 'serious' themes that led to the delay," explains Poulomi Chatterjee, managing editor, Hachette India.
It's not that the genre is new to India. The West had always flooded the market with pageturners — from Arthur Conan Doyle and James Hadley Chase to Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. "I think the genre has not been seen as literary enough in India. This is surprising because in the West this is a wonderful literary genre," says Shantanu Chaudhuri, managing editor, Harper Collins India, the publishers of the Inspector Gowda series.
Regional languages, of course, have for long been a treasure trove of crime books — with Saradindu Bandopadhyay's Byomkesh Bakshi series, Satyajit Ray's Feluda, Ibn-e-Safi's Jasoosi Duniya and Surendra Mohan Pathak's 300-odd Hindi crime novels. But though there was some crime writing in English in India, there were not enough books for it to be described as a flourishing genre.
So what happened?
Stieg Larsson happened, says Simon & Schuster India head Rahul Srivastava. Larsson's bestseller Millennium trilogy triggered the popularity of the crime genre in India, he holds.
Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO,Westland Ltd, believes that the wave is just a new phase in Indian writing. The first phase was predominantly literary, he says. The second focused on commercial writing — with success stories such as Chetan Bhagat, Amish, Ashwin Sanghi and others. "The next step was to explore genres and in a country where crime dominates our headlines there is enough material to inspire our writers," Padmanabhan says.
The onset of this new trend is being tapped by writers from across genres. "The mindset has changed,"says Kishwar Desai, one of the founder members of the crime writers' group. "It is no longer looked down upon. There is a growing recognition that you don't have to write a hardcore literary novel to gain respect or have a bestseller," says Desai, whose last book The Sea of Innocence was a murder mystery set in Goa.
The vast Indian literary landscape is getting a much needed boost, both from publishers and writers. "Authors are willing to take risks and come up with fresh story ideas that would appeal to a wider readership. Many of them have given a new spin to crime writing by weaving in elements such as financial crime, Bollywood and mythology," says Kausalya Saptharishi, commissioning editor, Rupa Publications.
But the growth is not without its downside. "Earlier it was just one or two manuscripts every month in this genre but now it has tripled in number," Mita Kapur of literary agency Siyahi points out. "But some of them just don't work so our rejection rates too are high."
While the run-of-the-mill stuff will always be there, publishers are looking for an Indian P.D. James or a John le Carré. "What we now have to see is whether crime writers can push the envelope further and produce some literary crime fiction," says Somnath Batabyal, who showcased the shady world of crime reporters in Delhi with his book The Price You Pay.
Some new books — or soon-to-be-released volumes — are already being talked about. Among them are Rupa Publications' Item Girl, a pacy Bollywood crime thriller written by journalist Richa Lakhera, and Sextortion, written by filmmaker Piyush Jha under the Inspector Virkar series. From Westland comes The Butcher Of Banaras by Mahendra Jakhar, about a serial killer in the holy city.
Hachette will flood the shelves with Kaushal's SP Niki Marwah series, Liddle's mystery novel and Delhi-based writer Patrick Bryson's new crime fiction. Apart from the Inspector Gowda series, Harper Collins has Ashok Banker's books in the four-book Kali Quartet series. Penguin's Blue Salt imprint includes A Convenient Culprit by Vibha Singh, a Bollywood screenplay writer.
"A wave of crime writing is better than a wave of crime in India," Gokhale concludes.
In the works
A pacy Bollywood crime thriller by journalist Richa Lakhera
By filmmaker Piyush Jha under the Inspector Virkar series
The Butcher Of Banaras
By Mahendra Jakhar, about a serial killer in the holy city
SP Niki Marwah series
By Swati Kaushal
A Convenient Culprit
By Vibha Singh