Writer Shashi Deshpande feels there should be no distinction between literary fiction and crime fiction

Whenever Shashi Deshpande is asked how her latest novel can be read now — it was first written over 30 years ago but is being published only now — her answer is that her book is about people, human behaviour and interactions, which do not change.

“There might not be any gadgets but the reader will scarcely notice their absence. And human emotions are always them same,” she explained in the recent launch of her latest work of fiction and her 11 novel, If I Die Today, at the Alliance Francaise. The book launch was hosted by the Bangalore Literature Festival. Shashi was in conversation with writers Shinie Antony and Usha K.R.

Shashi began by describing her novel “as a story of people in whose midst crime happens and how the crime is resolved”.

If I Die Today is essentially a murder mystery whose protagonist is a terminally ill patient — it unravels on a medical college campus. The book was influenced by Shashi’s life, in the times she spent living on medical college campuses in Bangalore and Bombay.

“My husband is a pathologist. I have lived among doctors and marvelled at them. I have always looked at them with respect but sometimes I think it is easy for doctors to commit murders. That’s why the story is set in a hospital. The book came out of this thought,” she said. “I have always been fascinated by crime fiction. It takes you away from the world. It is pleasurable to see good winning over evil,” she explained answering Shinie’s question about why crime fiction is popular.

“In crime fiction, one gets to play out one’s fantasies and still not enter the dark side. And from a literary point of view, its structure in terms of tightness and plot and its page-turning quality is satisfying,” added Usha. She pointed out that P.D. James once said Jane Austen’s Emma was a perfect detective story, explaining that literary novels too can have a sense of mystery without being branded as thrillers or crime novels. “Here the author just strews clues and gives a chance for them to be uncovered but finally leads into them,” she said.

“As each character has many facets, no story can have a single strand, and a good reader always gets the sub-plots. What’s always fascinating for me is the unsaid. An author really can’t explain everything. The reader will never know most of the answers. That’s part of life,” Shashi pointed out.

Answering Shinie’s question about how she then plots thrillers, Shashi said she essentially builds characters who always lead into the plot. It is only the minor changes that she then has to work with, so any plotting is mostly unconscious. “I don’t think I can work like a classic crime writer with timings, police investigations or detectives. I simply want people to interact and this is why none of my novels have detectives.”

Shashi also said she wouldn’t really categorise her novel under a genre. “It’s sad that people make a distinction between literary novels and crime novels because there are several good books on crime.”

“The motive for all fiction is similar, the variation is in the treatment and the way writers approach the subject. Also, earlier, the way crimes of passion were uncovered was different. If they did it through letters in those days, today they do it through e-mails and SMSs though the motive remains the same. But the new generation of readers will need new ways of tackling old motives,” said Usha.

If I Die Today, published by Rupa Publications, is available in bookstores for Rs. 395.