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Interview: Tarquin Hall, Author of The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken

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I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken but I quite liked it. I received the book unsolicited but was intrigued by the idea of a book series about a private eye in India and so agreed to interview the author about his book and career.

Tarquin Hall, a British author and journalist, has crafted an engaging, fascinating novel, easily mixing a plot involving cut mustaches and corruption in cricket games with cultural information and slang. There is even a helpful glossary in the back of the book along with recipes for Indian dishes mentioned in the novel.

If you enjoy being educated and entertained at the same time–and who doesn’t?–than be sure to check out this novel.

Author Alexander McCall Smith summed it up well with this quote on the front book cover: “These books are little gems. They are beautifully written, amusing and intensely readable.”

Hall, who lives in Delhi, has a blog as does his protagonist, Vish Puri. Hall’s past books include The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing and Salaam Brick, a memoir about a year spent living above a Bangladeshi sweatshop in London’s notorious East End.

Where did the storyline for this particular book come from?

I thought it would be interesting to have a plot with a Pakistani killed on Indian soil. And I thought it would be especially interesting if the motivation for the murder was rooted in the events surrounding the partition of India in 1947. There was a lot of inter-communal and inter-religious violence when Pakistan was created, something like a million people died. So the murder was always going to be about revenge. At any rate, those were the bare bones of the plot. But when I started writing it became immediately obvious that for the whole thing to work, Puri was going to have to travel to Pakistan. And of course he hates the place. Pakistan’s his number one enemy, the country from where his mother’s family came and numerous relatives died.

Can you summarize what this book is about for those who haven’t read it?

I guess the description above probably makes the book sound pretty dark. And there’s some serious stuff in there. The back story is tragic–no two ways about it. But I don’t write terrifying thrillers set in deepest, darkest Bombay. What goes on in the minds of, say, serial killers just doesn’t interest me. The idea is that you get to learn about India as well as reading a good mystery. And there’s a healthy dose of humour as well. You have Puri’s Mummy off on her own, secretly investigating the murder of the Pakistani. Typically, she’s convinced she’s the only one who can solve the case. Plus Puri is chasing a thief whose been breaking into the houses of men with long moustaches and shaving them off.

Puri’s undercover team is also off in Surat in western India, which is where 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished. So there’s no shortage of new sights and sounds along the way. But, overall, the book tells you a lot about the relationship between India and Pakistan and how futile all the hostility and resentment is.

I confess this is the first book of yours I’ve read so can you tell me how it’s similar and different from others in the series?

You haven’t read the others? That’s shocking! The interview’s over! But OK, seriously…it’s similar in that this is about India so there’s an awful lot going on. Everyone in India always seems to be doing four things at once so it only follows that a detective is working on multiple cases at the same time. And it’s similar in that there’s this constant juxtaposition between the old and the new, the rich and the impoverished. One minute Puri and his team are in the homes of the super rich, and the next they’re trying to find a dead dog that’s been taken away by a so-called ‘ragpicker.’ My motivation for writing these books is to show India as it is today. It’s just the most extraordinary, complex culture and now it’s beginning to modernize which is creating a lot of interesting contrast.

Where should readers start with this series? Is it important to read them in order? Can they start with this one?

You can start with this new one. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference. They’re not written in any particular order. In some ways it might fun to work backwards. I would say that I think the plot is a bit better in this third one. I’ve been learning on the job and I my prime focus has been the content, the setting and all the colour. The mystery has come secondary.

Do you feel any obligation to educate the public about life in India through your books? Or do you just view it as entertainment? Not that you can’t be both, edutainment of sorts.

Yeah, like I said the whole idea is to describe India today. That’s very important to me. This isn’t Agatha Christie with more or less the same setting every time. And that makes it very challenging for me–to keep coming up with new settings and explore different places and cultural phenomenon. It’s all great fun. I have to do a lot of research and travel. With Butter Chicken for example I had to go overland from India into Pakistan. I’d never crossed on foot before; I’d always taken the plane. Puri hates flying so it had to be by road. That was an extraordinary experience. I found it very emotional. It really brought home to me what happened in 1947–this brutal carving up of communities. As a Brit I couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of responsibility for what happened.

Put another way, what messages or lessons do you hope to impart with this and your other books?

Well going back to your other question, it is entertainment as well, of course. I work hard to maintain a balance of pace, mystery and humour. And I have to bring back all the characters and allow them to develop. But I suppose something that stands out from all the books is the basic decency of the main character and his sidekicks. The world in which Puri has to operate is incredibly corrupt. The rule of law is tentative at best. Everyone is raping the system. By everyone I mean “The Nexus”–politicians, bureaucrats, business people. The traffic’s crazy, the pollution’s terrible, to get your kids into good schools requires influence and bribery. And yet, somehow, in the middle of all this, there’s enough basic, decent humanity around to ensure that society just about survives.

How would you describe the protagonist, Vish Puri? How are you similar and how are you different from him?

Oooh, I don’t think I’m like him at all. Well, OK maybe a little bit in that I like to eat a lot! But that really is about it. No, Puri is one hundred per cent Punjabi. He’s a composite character of many of the Punjabi men whom I’ve met over the years. In fact he’s not unlike some of my wife’s uncles. They’re pretty wily and quite fond of the sound of their own voices. It’s important in Indian culture to ensure that you establish your standing, your stature, and so they never waste any time in letting everyone know about their achievements. Within the extended family they’re used to kind of having the final say on most things. So I’ve made Puri quite pompous and full of himself, while at the same time being capable. I think that makes him quite endearing, even if at times he can be extremely irritating. And, of course, the truth is that while he sees himself in charge, the women in his life know different.

Ok I’m going to ask two questions that may sound dumb, I think I know the answer to only one of them. Is cricket really such a huge deal in India-Pakistan or did you magnify that some (with the cheerleaders, for example) for the book? Also is there really a culture or subculture in India where moustache-growing is so important?

No, that’s not dumb at all. Cricket’s a real mystery to most Americans–and understandably so. I made sure that there’s not too much about cricket in the book. It’s just the backdrop for the murder. But, yes, cricket is absolutely huge. Huge, huge, huge. Cricketers are worshiped like deities. You could argue they’re more popular than Bollywood stars. The game is watched by millions, upon millions. When India won the world cup last year it was dynamite. I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole country–1.2 billion people–went wild. So no exaggeration there. And my description of the cheerleader controversy is 100 per cent accurate. The whole thing was absolutely hilarious. You had these very young, attractive, white girls appearing on the sidelines wearing very little and the Indian boys were going completely nuts. They’d never seen anything like it. I went to a couple of games and none of the spectators were paying any attention to the cricket. They all had their mobile phones and video cameras trained on the cheerleaders. And, of course, conservative India didn’t like it at all. There were endless editorials in the newspapers condemning the girls, calling the whole thing crass and disgusting. But then it’s very in keeping with the commercialization of the sport.

As for moustaches, a lot of Indian men grow them. Punjabis especially. And there are some people who grow incredibly long ones in the hope of getting into the Limca Book of Records, which is the Indian equivalent of the Guinness book. Puri’s not one of those types, but having a moustache is important to him. He can’t imagine life without one.

Where did you come up with the idea of having a recipe at the back of the book? Is that something you’ve done with all of the books of this series?

This is the first time recipes have appeared and it was actually my editor’s idea. To tell you the truth I got them from my wife. I do cook quite a lot of Indian food myself but those recipes all came from her. They’re tried and “tasted!”

I’m a former journalist myself. Can you talk about your journalism background and how that has affected–and hopefully benefited–your career as a fiction writer?

Sure. Well, I started off in journalism when I was 19. I got this crazy idea about traveling with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan so off I went to Peshawar in Pakistan. A few years later I went to India where I was based in Delhi. So in all during the 90s I spent nearly five years in South Asia. While I was in Delhi I met my wife. She’s American from an Indian family. So all that had a huge impact on me, obviously. Then a few years ago I was back in India–we were living in London at the time–and I did a story for the Sunday Times newspaper on real Delhi detectives. Mainly it talked about how they make their bread and butter from matrimonial investigations–in other words spying on prospective brides and grooms and finding out if they’re everything they claim to be and whether they’ve been screwing around or they’re not from the caste they say they are. Anyhow, these detectives were great characters. They were handling the most extraordinarily diverse kinds of cases–everything from murder to entrapping smugglers of photocopier toner. I had never really given serious consideration to writing fiction before. But after the newspaper story appeared I found myself thinking about writing a novel. So I sat down one day in a coffee shop in London and within about ten minutes I had come up with Vish and his team and a basic plot.

I also asked–as I often do–for questions from others I know. This one is from a friend on Goodreads: “I would love to know if and when the most recent book will be available as an audiobook. This series is absolutely delightful on audio and I was hoping the audio might be released at the same time! ”

Yes there’s an audio book. It’s already out.

Do all your books have a glossary? Is it hard deciding which words to include? Is this for all editions or just the U.S. one?  

Yes they all have glossaries. A lot of people say they enjoy reading them. So I put in all the words, even if some readers might already be familiar with some of them.

Can you talk about this New York Times piece you wrote about trying to get your wife pregnant? Was that a hard decision to be so confessional about such a personal topic?

I don’t think I shared anything that intimate. All I said was that we were having a hard time having a baby. What I was trying to get across was the huge difference between East and West when it comes to our belief systems. We Westerners have come to believe that we’re in control of every aspect of our lives even though science tells us that this is nonsense. In India no one sees it that way. That goes for the Islamic world as well. With very few exceptions everyone believes that their lives are guided by some higher power. It’s such a fundamental difference and yet for Westerners it’s a hard one to grasp, to get their heads around. We find it hard to conceive of how the mind can see things that way. The intellect tells us that it’s a crazy way of viewing the world.

Lastly, I like to end my interviews with what I call my bonus question–a chance for an author to ask a question he wishes he would get asked and then has a chance to answer it.

I suppose it would be something along the lines of, “What in your opinion is the most important lesson you’ve learned from all your travels?” And I think the answer would have to be that without humour we’re nothing.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Indrani Ganguly

    I was introduced to Tarquin Hall and Vish Puri by my 19-year old son who loves hunting through Delhi bookshops for Indian authors. Afraid we both found the books a bit disappointing though I persevered and read this one and the previous two. The most irritating bit was the exaggeratedly idiosyncratic English: my son who was born and brought up in Australia and my husband who is a white Australian, say they have never met any Indian who speaks like that or has the silly nicknames.

    All of us find linguistically-challenged Anglo-Saxons whining about people who don’t speak English and have the temerity to have names and accents that are different from their own equally irritating.

    The social commentary was OK: I had no problems with that as I work in areas focusing on social inequities in Australia.

    However, we all agreed that the books failed to capture two essential elements of Indian culture and society: the colour and the warmth and spontaneous hospitality of people at an individual level.

    Overall, we would say that Alexander McCall Smith does a far better job with Madame Precious Ramotswe. We’re going to keep reading his books and recommending them to friends (who become instantly hooked) but not I’m afraid Mr Tarquin Hall’s offering. The only white (Anglo-Saxon) friend I offered The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken said she couldn’t get beyond the first few pages!