DETECTIVE FICTION

In a British author’s crowdfunded book, Bond and Holmes are no match for a Punjabi private eye

Journalist and writer Tarquin Hall is back as Vish Puri. And he has a bone to pick with Sherlock Holmes.

After years of sleuthing, screening prospective marriage partners for clients and putting criminals behind bars, Delhi’s private detective Vish Puri has finally decided to put in writing everything he knows about his profession. After all, his experience in this field, in his most humble opinion, is quite vast.

Puri, the fictional character created by British journalist and writer Tarquin Hall, begins his Delhi’s Detective Handbook with a section on himself. “Having achieved unprecedented acclaim and success, Puri is widely regarded as well as celebrated as the best detective in all of India, and possibly the world also,” he writes.

He goes on to list his achievements in this section, which include awards from the World Federation of Detectives Super Sleuth and an appearance on the cover of India Today magazine. The image of his face on the book cover is accompanied by the words “Danger is my ally”.

The book is not being released by a publishing house because, according to Hall, “there isn’t a slot on the shelves in the bookshops for a guidebook written by an Englishman pretending to be a Punjabi man”. So Hall depended on a campaign on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to collect funds to publish the handbook. On July 12, it reached the goal of £7,216 (around Rs 6 lakh). In a promotional video for the handbook, Vish Puri can be seen walking the streets of Delhi and enjoying a plate of gol gappas at India Gate.

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The middle-aged Puri first made his presence felt in the Indian detective genre, which, in the past have included greats like Shardindu Bandhopadhay’s Byomkesh Bakshi and Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, in 2009 with The Case of the Missing Servant. In the second instance, he was tasked with clearing a public litigator’s name accused of murdering his maid servant. Since then, Hall has written three more, with the last one published in 2013 – The Case of the Love Commandos.

The detective, described by Hall as “portly, persistent and unmistakably Punjabi”, also has a team of top undercover operatives – Tubelight, Flush and Facecream – to help him in all his cases. Anybody who knows anything about Hall’s creation knows Puri he takes himself very seriously, he has a formidable mummyji, and that he is as committed to Delhi’s fried street food as he is to ensuring his wife can never smell it on him.

In Delhi’s Detective Handbook, Hall explores his character further by writing in Puri’s voice. “I have his voice in my head,” said Hall. “So, it was like writing dialogue in his voice. The ‘about the author’ section was great fun, because it’s written by him, but about him and therefore he boasts about his many accomplishments. He also has a habit of lecturing everyone on how they should think and behave, so I included an appendix at the back with some of his letters to the editor of The Times of India.”

Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd
Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd

The handbook is partly a manual and partly a history of criminal investigation in India. It provides insights into modern-day Delhi, teaches crime-solving using examples of cases Puri has cracked, including the kidnapping of a monkey believed by its owner to be the reincarnation of his father. He also offers a course in expert disguises.

“When ingratiating oneself with page three types, that is Bollywood, professional cricketers and society peoples, I go in for something on the flamboyant side,” writes Puri. “Music and film producers are an easy choice and one need only to dress up like Bappi Lahiri. If at all possible take along a couple of gori girls on each arm, also.” This is accompanied by an illustration of Lahiri in sunglasses, sporting an “outlandish” hairstyle, wearing an open collared silk shirt.

Each page of the handbook includes illustrations by Mumbai-based artist Lavanya Kartik. One lip-smacking section of the manual tells the reader where to get the best gol gappas, chhole bhature and, obviously, butter chicken, during a stakeout.

Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd
Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd

Puri’s main objective in writing the book is to educate the fans of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond about India’s contribution to the art of spying. “My character is adamant that India has led the way for centuries in the field of spy craft and detection, and so I’ve included a fascinating section on the history of all that,” he said.

“The Arthashastra provided recommendations for how to solve crimes and detect poison 3,000 years before Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes,” said Hall, referring to the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy. “The Arthashastra is not a blueprint for operating as a spy in today’s world, but there’s a lot there that indicates that India was extremely advanced when it came to intelligence gathering. When Vish Puri says that Indians were running spy networks when 007’s [James Bond’s] ancestors were living in caves and painting themselves blue, he’s not wrong.”

Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd
Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd

Hall is married to a Punjabi from a large family, “so I’ve spent a lot of time around men of similar build and temperament”. “Besides, Delhi is a vast, complex city with a very high crime rate and not lacking in sleaze or corruption. One of the things I did in the Handbook to prove this, was to take two newspapers on a given day and extract all the headlines related to crime. These included reports of rapes, unexploded bombs, numerous unidentified bodies, references to massive scams, and so forth. So for a private investigator like Vish Puri, Delhi is an extremely fertile hunting ground indeed.”

Hall, however, did need help in lending authenticity to one aspect of Puri: “I was at a bit of a loss while writing the street food section. I love Indian food, eat a lot of it, but I don’t tend to go in for street food much. So for that I had to turn to friends for advice on where to go and what to have.”

Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd
Image courtesy: Sacred Cow Media Ltd
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