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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.