I had just finished writing Cut Like Wound and the book had gone to press. Unlike anything I had written before, I was a little unsure. For I had no real sense about what constituted a crime novel. I had read very little crime-fiction at that point. Once I had gone beyond Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Earl Stanley Gardener in my mid-teens, I had read only Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series.
But I did have an insatiable appetite for crime series on television and noir cinema. Then someone suggested that now that I had written my first noir novel, I ought to read some crime fiction. A sort of now-that-you-have-climbed-the-hill-look-around-and-enjoy-the-view!
My friend suggested I read Ian Rankin. And so I met John Rebus. I wondered then what had led to Rankin creating Rebus.
Almost all characters you create don’t just happen.
Step by step, you fashion them from observations and memory; from imagination and an understanding of geographical, demographic and psychological factors. You dress them and list out their likes and dislikes; you give them mannerisms, hobbies and habits. Everything they think, say or do has a reason – enhance the narrative and make it real.
But with your hero or a heroine, you go one step further and there is no logical explanation for why you do it, but you enshrine a trait from someone you love or raise from the dead another from someone you once loved. Never anything from the people you dislike or those who annoy you. That you save for the jerks, male and female, who inhabit your pages. If with your heroine, you find a sisterhood. It is with your hero that you have a love affair.
Unlike the ones in real life that you hope against hope will last forever with bells ringing, you are mature and realistic about how long you can keep the butterflies fluttering in the pit of your belly. You know that when you come to the end, it really is finis. That you can go separate ways with your dignity intact and neither hurt nor remorse. You created a character. You fell in love, the affair came to a natural end, and you moved on…
But god who doesn’t take kindly to writers playing god. You can’t stop thinking about the hero, the man you created, and the possibilities your life together holds. You did breathe yourself into him. You invested in him your hopes and darkest fears; your secret thoughts and what you know are your personal idiosyncrasies. It isn’t subverted narcissism; or losing yourself to a fantasy image. It is about creating a soul mate who is also an alter ego; someone who can do what you can’t in real life. And having found him you are unable to let him go.
Sometimes I wonder: is this why I decided I was going to create a series around Borei Gowda?
When he walked into my life, actually rode into my life on a 500-cc Royal Enfield Bullet, he was a fully formed being. Almost 50 years old, a little over six feet tall, a basketball player whose once muscular frame is soft in the middle, blurred at the edges, with grey hair cut regulation short and a pleasant face made interesting by a cleft in the chin.
I had never met or known anyone like him. Nor did I ever think I would write about a policeman hero. A government clerk or a kathakali dancer, a cyclone expert or a 16th century traveler – These were the kind of characters I had appropriated for myself. Not someone weighed down by stereotypes cast through fiction or cinema.
But here he was, demanding to be written about. I tried to fill in a few gaps. Gowda is married and with a 20-year-old son who is doing his medical degree in Hassan. His wife Mamata, also a doctor, lives in Hassan with their son.
But then came Urmila – Gowda’s ex-girlfriend. In Gowda’s defense, Urmila’s reappearance in his life would have happened whether his wife was in the same city or not. Gowda is a policeman who joined the force wanting to right the world’s ills. However, the reality of dealing with incompetent senior officers and corruption within the force has made him cynical. His diffidence towards rules, his unwillingness to compromise to please anyone and his tendency to not look the other way has made him a disliked figure amongst his peers. Gowda is also surly, intolerant of idiots and someone who doesn’t play the caste or religion card.
This has also affected his promotion and so he is still only an inspector, while his batchmates have all risen in the ranks. Gowda has taken to alcohol as a salve to heal his bruised pride. But in Urmila, he sees someone who used to know him the way he used to be. She makes him feel hopeful again and so it is to her that he turns to for emotional support as much as sensual fulfilment. So it isn’t just his professional life but his personal one too is a mess.
A quarter way through the writing of Cut Like Wound, I was lunching with a friend at the venerable old institution called Koshys. He and I were debating on what Gowda would drink. Whisky and water or rum and coke. Chetan had already taken it upon himself to weed out my errors of incomprehension. In the end, we called a steward at the restaurant to ask him his opinion. “Rum. Old Monk and coke,” he said. “That’s what they all drink.”
Chetan looked at me and asked, “After all this energy trying to put this man together, are you going to stop with this one book?”
“No,” I shook my head. I hadn’t thought about it until then but suddenly I knew. This was a character I wanted to spend more time with it. Discover who he was and the workings of his mind as we went along.
“Gosh, you and your Gowda,” he said wrily.
In my study, I have a shelf devoted to crime. Writers whose crime writing I love best and know I will read again. Henning Mankell; Ian Rankin; John Le Carre; Karen Slaughter; Lawrence Block; Peter James; Thomas Harris and Trevanian. It is the writers who have a single character [or two] holding together a series that I gravitate towards more naturally. As a reader you want your investment into a character to go beyond just one book.
And now as a writer, I wanted to do the same.
A few months after Cut Like Wound was first published, I stumbled upon a book by Peter James – Dead Man’s Time – and as I read I discovered that it was the 9th in the series. But I was so taken in by Roy Grace that I wanted to go back and start reading the series from the first book. A month later I met Peter James when he was visiting India and that meeting was a revelation. Here was an author who had created an entire series of novels around a single character and a single city, Brighton.
We talked a great deal about writing crime, though I never did ask him what it was to write a series. But as I sat down to write this piece on what it is to extend a character beyond a book, I mailed Peter to ask him what had set him off. "I never actually planned a series. I had a two-book contract from my publishers, for the first two Roy Grace books. To make Roy different I decided it would be interesting to give him a private puzzle of his own he could not solve. So when we first meet him, in Dead Simple, we learn that nine years earlier he came home on his 30th birthday to find his wife, Sandy, whom he loved and adored, had vanished. For nine years he has been searching for her, whilst functioning as an effective homicide detective. "
But underlying this is something else. The storyteller’s vision: "People often forget that police officers are normal people, not some kind of superhuman breed. They are profoundly affected by all the terrible things they see during their careers…The great joy of writing a series is that one has the time and space to develop a character, giving a huge arc, in a way that the confines of a single thriller novel, constricted by the unity of time, place and action, does not."
Two years ago a newspaper report on missing children set me thinking.
The statistics were both dismal and frightening. I had written about female foeticide in Lessons in Forgetting. And I knew what it meant to walk down that road in the world of literary fiction. There is no escaping the fact that you have to step into the skin of the victim and the perpetuator of the crime.
I would have to do the same in a crime novel as well. But now I had Inspector Borei Gowda to take the brunt of the emotional toll exploring this subject would exact. He was there to step in and somehow make things a little better.
What would Gowda do if he were thrust into the middle of a child trafficking ring? How would he handle it, both literally and figuratively? What would it do to him? My obsession about this character who refused to be contained within a book would have me thrust him into situations to see how he would respond; just so I would understand him better.
Perhaps it isn’t just me. Perhaps all writers do this. And I quote what Ian Rankin told me when I asked him about his John Rebus and if he had conceived him as a character to hold together a series: “Rebus was never intended to be a serial character. But I wanted to know more about him and could only do that by writing more books. The pleasure of continuing his adventures is that he can grow and evolve, changed by the various cases he works on, maturing as a complex human being.”
In the beginning of Chain of Custody Gowda has cut down on his drinking, taken up running and has lost some weight. At the end of the novel, we see a hopeful Gowda.
So why then is it that I am haunted by what will be the opening scene of the third book? Gowda wasted; bleary eyed and slack of jaw with a nearly empty bottle of rum and death in his soul. Why is it I can’t erase from my mind this image of him? Whatever happened between now and that not so distant future?
Anita Nair’s second book in the Inspector Gowda series, Chain of Custody, has just been published.