On the spice trail

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An enduring love for crime novels, incessant gluttony and travel brought debutant author Madhumita Bhattacharya to put pen to paper, quite literally. She tells Debashree Majumdar about her debut novel  The Masala Murder (part of a crime series — The Calcutta Crime-Fighters’ Club), her unwillingness to write a literary novel to begin her writing career and why great crime should ‘almost’ take place in Shanghai.

Murder on your plate: Madhumita Bhattacharya

Why crime fiction as your first novel?
I took a very pragmatic decision. For to get a first novel published in a very challenging environment, I needed to write something that fit into a genre of some sort, that a publisher could see it working commercially. Of the sorts of books that get categorised as ‘genre fiction’, the one closest to my heart is mystery. I love crime novels, crime movies, crime shows. It just works for me.

The Masala Murder
Madhumita Bhattacharya
Pan Macmillan
275 pp, Rs 250

Over the past few years there have been many attempts by Indian authors to cut it with crime fiction, but they haven’t quite worked. The resurgence of the Great Indian Detective Novel is yet to take place. 
The success or failure of other attempts did not really inform my decision. In fact, when I started writing The Masala Murder, I hadn’t read any of the other mystery efforts that had been published in India of late. My choice was a purely personal one. All I knew was that I didn’t want to write literary fiction—at least not at this juncture—and that I wanted to write something entertaining meant for every reader.

‘If I ever write about someone who doesn’t like food, in all probability, he or she will turn out to be the axe murderer of the piece!

Reema Ray, your protagonist, is also a journalist like you. Is the book semi-autobiographical?
I wish my life and choices were as adventurous as Reema’s, but they are not! The only things Reema and I share are that we both, at some point, have written about food; we both love to bake; and we both would give our eye-teeth for soup dumplings! My own food writing, and my incessant gluttony and travels, provided enough fodder in themselves. However, the real inspiration came from Shanghai, where I lived while writing this. There is a certain edgy air of possibility to that fantastic city. It is a place where great crime could and almost should take place.

The Masala Murder, apart from being about crime, is also about food. The trail of spices lends it a unique flavour. Why did you centre your novel round gourmet cooking?
I don’t really think it was a decision I took consciously. That Reema would be a foodie was almost a given. I have been writing about food for many years. Almost all of my friends are passionate about food. If I ever write about someone who doesn’t like food, in all probability, he or she will turn out to be the axe murderer of the piece!

In an earlier avatar, the novel was actually set in Shanghai, and Reema was on a crusade against Indian travellers and expats who steer clear of Chinese food. That element was wholly autobiographical, I must confess, as it annoyed me no end that many Indians I met in Shanghai neglected the divine local food and stuck to the mediocre fare peddled by Indian restaurants there out of fear and prejudice. Unfortunately, the decision to relocate the action to India bumped that element out.

Your novel is based in Calcutta, but you wrote it while you were away in Shanghai. How did it help/hurt your writing process?
The first draft of The Masala Murder was actually set in Shanghai. I rewrote it to be set in Calcutta, also while living in China. Calcutta having been home for two decades, I don’t think I can ever get it out of my system enough to find writing about it difficult. The next novel in the series is set in Mumbai, where I have never lived, and a number of fictitious locales (where no one has ever lived!), and it doesn’t seem to make writing any more difficult. A little research is needed, but I find that quite a lot of fun.

Debashree Majumdar is Copy Editor with Tehelka.com.
[email protected]

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