The recent reissue of two detective fiction series reminds you of all that is wonderful about the genre, says Trisha Gupta
TWO EXTREMELY popular detective fiction series have been reissued recently: the Inspector Ghote mysteries and four Urdu novels in English translation from Ibne Safi’s Jasoosi Duniya series. The mild-mannered Inspector Ghote of the Bombay CID was perhaps crime writer HRF Keating’s most loved character. Keating, who died on 27 March 2011 at the age of 84, had famously never been to Mumbai (or India) when he wrote his first Ghote book in 1961. The decision to set his new detective series in Mumbai was apparently taken while browsing through an atlas, with an eye on the American market, which he believed would warm to an international locale more than it had to his British settings. (They did.)
The Jasoosi Duniya novels, too, are clearly gunning for an international feel. But here it is not the detective — the dapper aristocrat-turned-policeman, Inspector (later Colonel) Faridi — who is foreign. It is the various villains — monkey- faced Finch, of Goan Portuguese descent, once a circus performer in the US; notorious American arch-criminal Dr Dread, known for his knowledge of poisons; half-Chinese, half-Mongolian Sing Hee, who likes to squeeze his victims to death. Then there are other things that create an ‘
international’ ambience — like characters dining at a restaurant called the Arlecchino, or flirting with girls at an ice skating rink. All of these glamourous touches, however, seem added — as in generations of popular Hindi films — to try and create a larger-than-life aura around a cultural universe otherwise perfectly recognisable to Safi’s subcontinental Urdu readership. This is a universe in which it is not seen as surprising that an intelligent “small-boned” 18-year-old girl should have been married off to her large cousin with speech defects “to keep the riches in the family” — and yet the incongruity of the match is remarked upon, with Ibne Safi’s gentle humour.
This interest in unpeeling the social world around the crime, the clear-eyed understanding of how class and power operate, influencing even the most intimate relationships, is perhaps the only thing common to these very different styles of fiction. If Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart unpacks the precarious circumstances created by a rich man being asked to pay a ransom for the tailor’s son who has been kidnapped instead of his own, The Laughing Corpse centres around the kidnapping of a “lowly typist” whose unexpected inheritance had suddenly made her the town’s most eligible girl. The staunchly middle class Ghote, who worries about taxi fares, dreams of cold buttermilk when he watches his rich complainant pour himself a Scotch and must muster all the courage at his command to exert a semblance of authority in the face of social superiors, could not be more unlike Faridi, a man with a private income who comes to detection out of a passion for criminology, has a degree from Oxford and owns a palatial house with its own laboratory and library. But in both Keating and Safi, there is that deepdown stock-in-trade of the best crime fiction — an abiding interest in how the world works.
The chilling curse of vote banks
The brutalised lives of Muslims in Kolkata slums have a resonance for the entire country, says Yoginder Sikand
THAT MUSLIMS are among the most deprived sections of Indian society is undeniable. But as to why this is so, there is no unanimity. This book, immensely rich in ethnographic detail drawn from dozens of in-depth interviews, explores the dimensions as well as causes for widespread Muslim deprivation. Although it focusses only on selected Muslim-dominated slums in Kolkata, the insights it generates are of wider relevance for other parts of India.
Muslims account for a fourth of Kolkata’s population, but are heavily overrepresented among the city’s poor. The Muslim-inhabited slums the book surveys are uniformly characterised by endemic poverty, soaring rates of unemployment, pathetically low school enrolment rates and abysmal levels of public service provisioning. The vast majority of their denizens are manual labourers, many of them former artisans unemployed because of the invasion of ‘globalisation’. Crime and drugs flourish under the nose of the conniving police. The slum dwellers live under constant threat of eviction, by ‘developers’ and land sharks. Life is short, nasty and brutal.
Although Bengal has been spared anti-Muslim violence for decades now, Seabrook and Siddiqui argue that the self-styled communist government simply uses its Muslims as a vote-bank, doing little for their development. Muslim localities are, deliberately, they claim, denied developmental funds. Innocent Muslim men have been arrested by the police and charged with terrorist offences. The authors cite many people who complain of pervasive anti-Muslim prejudice in wider society and at the hands of the authorities.
While thick in description and provi ding a chilling account of what it means to be poor and a Muslim in ‘shining India’, the book is somewhat one-sided in its analysis of Muslim deprivation. Surely, while anti-Muslim discrimination is a major explanatory factor, the role of Muslim political and religious leaders in reinforcing Muslim backwardness and ‘self-exclusion’ and their doing precious little to address the question of Muslim poverty simply cannot be ignored. Nor, too, can the role of certain dominant understandings of Islam that shape and circumscribe people’s behaviour and further reinforce their ‘otherisation’ and marginalisation. The book also overlooks the crucial role of caste in overall backwardness. Presumably, the bulk of the denizens of the slums the book surveys are ‘low’ caste Muslims (who form the bulk of the Indian Muslim population). Ignoring totally the caste factor, the authors fail to realise that the pathetic poverty of their respondents is due not just to their Muslim-ness but also to their caste background.
Overall, despite these glaring lapses, this book is a must-read, brutally shattering the myth of the ‘Indian developmental miracle’.
Yoginder Sikand is a sociologist and Islamic studies scholar.
Arpita Singh: Artist
By Yamini Deenadayalan
A book that means a lot to you.
I was once reading a slim book titled A Tibetan Play, the details of which evade me now, but it reminded me of the Ramayana. In the introduction, the phrase ‘wish dream’ stuck in my head. It was a time when I didn’t know what to paint but this phrase inspired me to create the mural Wish Dream. Books don’t directly affect my art but you read and one word or phrase strikes you. [The painting sold for Rs 9.6 crore, the highest for an Indian woman artist so far.]
Do you have a favourite genre?
I like non-fiction and am especially interested in reading about anthropology.
What is your favourite book on anthropology?
I like the book After the Ice by Alun Anderson, which is about how human beings rebuilt their lives after the ice age, slowly getting back to agriculture, etc. I seek to find something about myself from novels about the past and something also finds its way into my art.
Do you read much about art?
I hate reading about art. I like to make my own opinions. I mostly prefer reading artists’ own writings. I like Swiss artist Paul Klee’s works (Paul Klee Notebooks). It helps to read criticism sometimes to have an informed opinion.
What is your favourite book of all time?
I like the Masks of God series by Joseph Campbell, which explores primitive, oriental, occidental and creative mythology.
Yamini Deendayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.