Indian police evolve in crime fiction (Column: Bookends V)

By Vikas Datta (10:36) 

The roles have been reversed in crime fiction. As the genre was born, it was amateur detectives like Sherlock Holmes who solved crimes or guided police to the solution. They still flourish, but police have reclaimed their role in crime-solving and have managed to hang in there — in police procedurals set across the world.

Apart from British and American examples like Inspector Morse or the 87th Precinct squad or even the crop of angst-ridden Scandinavian investigators, stories of police officials doggedly solving crime can be found in almost every country — USSR/Russia, Japan, Bosnia, Brazil, Turkey, China, and even Botswana, the Solomon Islands and Samoa.

India is very much on the list.

There are over half a dozen Indian characters that can hold their own globally. Almost all are indigenous creations. However, only a few of the books are police procedurals — a genre with rich potential but still in its infancy in India.

Among the first Indian policemen seen in fiction is Inspector Strickland, an immortal creation of Rudyard Kipling, seen in six short stories and a cameo appearance in “Kim”.

A maverick at odds with his superiors, he is known for his skill in operating undercover and knowing secrets, which consequently makes him both hated and feared by the natives. However, Strickland’s feats are only referred to and just one of the stories can be called crime fiction.

The first four books of Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series are set in British India, but he can be ignored since he is of the Scotland Yard, not the Indian Police.

The first full-fledged Indian police detective — but not an indigenous creation — is Bombay (now Mumbai) police Inspector Ganesh V. Ghote, who doggedly solves crime despite all the pressures.

The brainchild of H.R.F. Keating — who never visited India till midway into the series — Ghote appears in 24 novels and a collection of short stories (published between 1964 to 2009), as well as a film (“The Perfect Murder”, with Naseeruddin Shah in the role).

It was only in late 2008 that the first indigenous Indian policeman appeared – Delhi Police ACP Nikhil Juneja, who stars in Reeti Gadekar’s “Families at Home” (2008) and “Bottom of the Heap” (2012).

The rebellious but hedonistic son of a rich businessman, Juneja chose the police, instead of the family business, and finds his way eased more by his antecedents than his position in the force.

“Families At Home” can be loosely termed a whodunnit, tending more towards how influence can subvert investigations, while “Bottom of the Heap” sticks to the theme as well as class and caste division faultlines and is only tangentially concerned with crime-solving.

It ends on a dilemma — Juneja trying to decide between expediency and justice, his future in the force, how to deal with his father and, yes, how to escape his girlfriend. A third in the series is long due but there is no sign of it yet.

Anita Nair’s “Cuts Like Wound” (2012) introduces another promising character — Inspector Borei Gowda of the Bangalore Police. The archetypal policeman, Gowda, who has difficult relations with his family and superiors, struggles to be allowed to pursue what are dismissed as random killings, but he correctly identifies as the work of a serial killer. A sequel is earnestly sought.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Bikram Chatterjee’s capers are more like police procedurals. Debuting in Monabi Mitra’s “FIR” (2012), he returns in “The Dead Don’t Confess” (2013) — both atmospheric, racy whodunnits (but incorporating other sub-plots) set in Kolkata and its surroundings. Both books seem quite authentic in approach, possibly due to the author having a husband who is a police officer.

Inspector Virkar of Mumbai Police is another promising character. Originally appearing as a supporting character in one of the novellas in Piyush Jha’s noirish “Mumbaistan” (2012), he graduates to his own book, “Compass Box Killer” (2013), a tautly-written tale of a spate of killings and the good inspector’s efforts to ascertain a pattern that will help him to identify and apprehend the killer. A betrayal fleshes out the tale.

Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah is a feisty, determined but a credible character. She debuts in the murder mystery “Drop Dead” (2012) , which successfully weaves together several engrossing strands, from murder in a restricted access site, corporate politics, the seamy side of celebrity relationships, to war heroes with dark pasts, but retains the police procedure aspect with alibi checks, forensic tests, pressure from superiors, and so on.

“The Butcher of Benares”, by Mahendra Jakhar, featuring Delhi Police Crime Branch Inspector Hawa Singh has just appeared. Since I am yet to read it, I can’t comment on it.

(16-03-2014-Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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