In 2012 I received an unsolicited book, The Case of The Deadly Butter Chicken, by Tarquin Hall. I gave it a try and liked it. It was not a heavy read but it was fun and charming and since it was set in India and comments on society there it also felt a bit educational. I had a pleasant interview with the author here.
So when I received a copy of his new book, The Case of the Love Commandos, I quickly agreed to do another email interview. This book has more social commentary than the last on issues I raise in the interview.
If you want to read a charming fun book about a detective, Vish Puri, in India who loves to eat try this book out. A bonus is that Hall always includes a few recipes in the book as well as a glossary of words used in the book that those not living in India may not know.
Tarquin Hall is a British author and journalist who lives in Delhi. His Vish Puri series has received praise from everyone from Alexander McCall Smith to Marilyn Stassio, who reviews crime novels for The New York Times Book Review.
How did this story develop?
I’d heard of the Love Commandos, a real life charity that works with young people from different castes and religions who want to marry against the wishes of their families. At the same time I wanted the fourth book to be set in rural India and to explore the caste issue. So, bingo, the two ideas came together and I came up with the love story idea: a boy from an untouchable family running off with a high caste girl with the Love Commandos helping them out. Then I read an article about how researchers have been mapping the human genome here in India and how fascinating the findings are proving because you’ve had different endogenous groups of people living in the same communities as one another and never mixing – that is for centuries. So that became a big part of the plot, too. Basically that’s how I work – I find what I want to talk about, so that each book tells you more and more about India, and then I try to come up with a decent plot.
How would you summarize what it is about?
It’s basically about how caste continues to dominate Indian society and politics – less so in the cities, but to be honest even in a place like Delhi it’s a big factor in most communities. It’s an extraordinary thing caste, unlike any other system that exists in any other society I’ve come across. If you’re unfortunate enough to have been born into a low caste the chances are you will still end up doing the most menial of tasks. It is changing slowly. And there are many, many exceptions. But generally speaking that’s still the case.
Tell me more about the “Love Commandos’…
I spent quite a bit of time with the Love Commandos seeing how they work, and met run away couples in safe houses here in Delhi. These couples were on the run from their parents. Some of them were worried that they would be killed if they were found, that their relatives would do anything to stop them marrying someone from another caste or religion. You have to remember that 99% of all marriages in India are arranged. So the parents and the rest of the family have to give their consent.
Where do yourself stand on the topic of arranged marriage? Why did you decide to include the debate over the topic in this book?
It’s definitely better to have choice in my opinion, to be able to have a say and decide for yourself. And obviously sometimes arranged marriages can be absolutely terrible, with people locked into an awful situation with someone they don’t love – or worse with someone who persecutes them. That said, I have seen a lot of arranged marriages that work very, very well. People get on, learn to love one another and when times get tough I think sometimes it helps to feel this sense of commitment to not only your husband or wife but the rest of the extended family.
Some of the capers in your books, especially those involving Mummy, are quite funny. Do you smile or laugh as you write those?
Yes absolutely. Sometimes I just burst out laughing and can’t stop. That’s a great feeling. In fact as a writer I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying.
I found fascinating the explanations of the caste system and the Yadavs and the Brahmins. Can you explain it to our readers and talk about why you decided to include that topic in this book?
Well, as I show in the book, the power and position of the different castes has shifted in the past 60 or so years. Traditionally the Brahmins, the priestly caste, have been at the top. But nowadays that’s not always the case. Not all Brahmins are necessarily priests and even if they are they’re not necessarily that well off. Because of the affirmative action system set up after India gained its independence from Britain, there have been government job quotas for the lower castes. So that’s empowered some of them and in some areas – it’s hard to generalize – altered the local power structure. Democracy has also played a big part in bringing change. The lower castes have become powerful politically as they represent big vote banks. The Yadavs, whom I write about in the book, are a good example of this.
Is it hard deciding which Hindi words to include in the glossary?
Not really. Some are absolutely necessary. You can’t write about, say, caste or Hindiusm without using some words that people outside India are not familiar with. But there are others that I include because I think they enhance the sense of place and language. That’s the case with food especially. Also, people here will often mix Hindi and English – use a word that doesn’t translate or for which there’s only really one word and that’s fun to reproduce.
How about deciding which recipes to include in the book?
That’s tougher. Because there are so many that detective Vish Puri likes! But I generally go with ones that have been mentioned in the book. To be honest it’s kind of an afterthought. But with book number three, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, I obviously had to go with butter chicken!
How would you describe the protagonist, Vish Puri and his competitor?
Puri is in his mid fifties, overweight, extremely pompous, but very honest and sincere. He’s rather old-fashioned – likes to hang out at his gentleman’s club and drives an old Ambassador car, which is very outdated. His methods are sometimes a little suspect and he relies a lot on his undercover team who go into all sorts of situations. As for his main competitor, Hari, he’s a lot more together in many ways, certainly more polished. And he doesn’t suffer from too many scruples. He wears Italian suits and loafers and doesn’t think much of Puri’s Safari suit
What question do you wish you would get asked more often.. and then go ahead and answer it
Actually I got asked an interesting question recently. An elderly gentleman at a book promotion event – this was in the States – asked me whether I thought people from different countries and cultures were that different from one another. I think he was asking in the context of terrorism and trying to understand why people wanted to kill innocent civilians. I answered along the lines that geneticists have found that we’re about 98% the same. Skin colour, shape of the nose – that’s all determined by about 2% of our DNA.