Here at theindiaphile we are huge fans of India’s greatest detective, the inimitable Vish Puri. Oh yes, there have been great literary detectives: Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, but all of these pale into insignificance compared to Tarquin Hall’s iconic Punjabi super sleuth. Just now, the fourth in the seminal Puri series of novels has hit the shops. Titled The Case of the Love Commandos this episode sees Vish and his trusty operatives Tubelight and Facecream on the hunt for a missing boy and, like all of Tarquin Hall’s books marries humour with a sensitive and insightful look at modern India. If you haven’t yet discovered this bestselling series, now’s your chance.
Halls first Vish Puri books were superb: laugh out loud funny and showing the signs of a series which could really run. But with this fourth book, he’s upped the ante further. His descriptive writing paints a vivid and moving picture of India, the themes of caste inequality, arranged marriage and modernisation are woven sensitively into a tensely plotted page-turner. As a long term resident of India, Tarquin Hall conveys a genuine love of his homeland with a mischievous sense of satire. The dialogue here (Just he’s doing timepass.’ ) is a side-splitting approximation of the English spoken in India, and the detail: whizzing rickshaw chases, the sun breaking over the Taj Mahal, a peg of Royal Challenge taken in the ‘Gymkhana Club’, all evoke aspects of the country which will be true to anyone who has visited.
To find out more about Puri’s world, first check out the brilliant website http://www.vishpuri.com/ which will give you a taster! This site does a great job of conveying the slightly cartoonish character Tarquin Hall has created, as well as Puri’s love for Indian food. The Case of the Love Commandos actually has two brilliant additions: firstly some of Vish’s favourite recipes at the back, which is a great touch, and secondly a glossary of Indian terms: invaluable in their own right. If you haven’t already picked up your copy of the Love Commandos, get your copy here:
How’s the atmosphere in Delhi today
Well, polling day is the only day where the city’s properly dead, there’s no jambouree, no one throwing paint or lighting fireworks. The middle classes traditionally don’t really vote, so they just stay at home. The chemists have to open because of people’s high blood pressure, and yet there are police roadblocks everywhere so it’s a strange atmosphere. People are generally watching things unfold on TV but outside it’s quiet.
How long have you been in India now?
Well, I came here in the mid 90’s, having lived in Pakistan before that. My wife is from an NRI family, we met here and then went back to London but then 7 years ago now we rented a small flat in Nizammudin west, and then 3/12 years ago we came back properly. We have two young children here and they absolutely love it; I’ve just returned from a trip to Corbett National Park with my son.
So tell us how this great creation of yours Vish Puri came into being?
Well I never every considered getting into crime writing but I wanted to write about what was going on on India, that was my initial idea. I hate the much bandied phrase ‘modern india’ but I’d seen so much of India, and I wanted to write a book about what was changing. So during my first years here there were a number of ideas about a sort of ‘explaining india to the rest of the world book’ but it didn’t happen, which is probably a good thing. Then, during one of these stints back here with my wife, I heard about my wife’s cousin, who was being told to have an arranged marriage. She started telling me over breakfast one day she had these private detectives following her, calling up her office and squeezing her colleagues for information. ‘Is she a good girl? they were asking her friends.’ ‘Does she smoke?’ That kind of thing. One detective even asked a colleague of hers to bring her down outside the office so some prospective parents could drive by and get a look at her without having to meet her parents. She did this, if you can believe it, and this really got me thinking. Afterwards I started calling round to find some real life detectives which I then wrote into a piece for the Sunday times business. Anyway, meeting these detectives was brilliant. They were real characters, and I had so much fun doing it, I really loved it. So that was the seed. Private detectives in Delhi. One day I thought hang on I should base a character on these guys, and use him as a great way to describe todays india. I was in London actually in a café nero in Holborn and I started jotting down names and characters and it went from them.
I’m struck by how well plotted these books are: is that a process you take seriously?
Well the whole point of these books is to show you a piece of the culture,. I don’t come up with a twist and then work backwards, I think first ‘what do I want to talk about?’ With Love Commandos I wanted to talk about caste, UP, the Vaishno Devi Pilgrimage. My wife’s family is Punjabi and really that’s one of the things people do together here is to go on pilgrimages. I had actually done that pilgimage with her family and, as we all struggled up this steep hill, I saw these hugely fat people being carried in palanquins and, for some reason the thought occurred to me then that if someone was wearing a fat suit it would be a very clever way to smuggle money. So that made it into this most recent book!
Vish Puri is characteristically Punjabi: was this for a particular reason?
Funnily enough I had a good friend from Calcutta living in London and he said What are you working on? I said A detective novel, and he said Oh tell me more? I said well the detective’s Punjabi, and my friend went What!!!
I think a lot of detectives in India do tend to be Bengali because a lot of writers see Bengalis as intelligent. But actually I think Punjabits are a bit wilier, they’re used to dealing with a very complex culture. Also, my wife’s family is Punjabi so I’m around a lot of them.
Has anyone been offended by your characterizations of India?
Actually not, I sort of beavered away on the first one I sent it off and then suddenly publication date came and I though wow, Slumdog Millionaire had already come out and a lot of people were outraged by it. Maybe I’m going to really upset people with Vish Puri. But fortunately that hasn’t happened at all. Indians actually have a brilliant sense of humour about themselves and they can laugh at themselves. They don’t want to be made to feel inferior but they’re well able to take a joke.
Yes, there’s a lot of comparisons made to Alexander McCall Smith, whose books I enjoy. But actually I’d never read them before writing Vish, he just came to me as he is. My wife’s uncles are all like that. One of them is a high court lawyer in Jaipur, physically he’s exactly Vish puri, proud, a family man. Many people have said to me too how much Vish reminds them of their uncle, their dad, he’s familiar.
Although it’s humourous, all the books very subtly makes serious points.
Well, they are there yes. I think actually there are far too many white guys like me lecturing everyone on how they should behave and think, which isn’t terribly constructive.But the stories are engaged with what’s happening here.
Was there a conscious decision to make the books feature a lot of Indian food?
Well, The thing was as soon as I started writing about a Punjabi I realised I had to write about street food, food connected to festivals,
IN the last book, you added the recipes which the American publisher put in, a lot of people have written in and said how much they enjoyed the butter chicken.
What are the plans for the continuation
Well I’m working on something completely different at the moment, I can’t go into details but I’ve written the first couple of chapters, It’s set in London in 1888 and it’s giving me a bit of a break from Vish. So since love commandos I’ve had a bit of break which really tired me out and but, actually I’m missing him. SO this may be another series – its mystery as well – so I’m hoping to write that this year, and Vish uri has done his guide to be ing a delhi detective, all the illustrations are done for that, I think I’ll self publish that…. He introduced me to india….
You can also learn more about Tarquin Hall and his books here: http://tarquinhall.com