It was a bright, sunny afternoon, eclipsed only by a looming submission deadline. The relatives who poured in for a puja prattled on and panditji waited, eyeing the proceedings dolefully from a distance. Deadline in mind, I had no option but to take up a spot at the dining table, where a few curious eyes fell on my laptop screen. One quick read about a mutilated body and blood spatter was enough to make an aunt regurgitate the samosa she had consumed seconds ago and an uncle to run to the puja room, into panditji’s welcoming embrace.
While my family comprising staid and clearly faint-hearted civil servants might not have an appetite for crime writing, do they really represent a sentiment mirrored by the rest of the country? In the U.S. alone, crime and mystery as a sub-genre was selling in the vicinity of $728 million in 2020, and it has unofficially been the U.K.’s highest selling genre. What ails its sales in India, which has not just one of the largest English-speaking populations but eager readers of regional literature as well?
While the West had a bit of an early start, the prolific writers of a colonised India — Rabindranath Tagore, Subramanya Bharati, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Munshi Premchand, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Usha Mehta, Sarojini Naidu, amongst others — were pre-occupied with chronicling the travails of the common man, the strains and tumult of servility, the freedom struggle and our place in the world. In that scheme of things, writing about murders and mysteries when there was so much strife around might have seemed trivial.
Regional literature to the fore
This lacuna was quickly filled by a tsunami of literature from the West, aided by convent education and English-medium schools mushrooming everywhere, assuaging eager young appetites with the wondrous adventures of Enid Blyton, the tales of fair-haired young detectives like the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, then Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Auguste Dupin, and Sherlock Holmes. But with our innate ability for turning improbabilities on their head, a thrilling storm was brewing in regional literature with West Bengal emerging as a hotbed for detective fiction. Satyajit Ray’s unforgettable Feluda and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi quickly became household names, with Bengali-speaking audiences first, and the rest of the country later.
But well before that, Darogar Daptar (1892) was the first Bengali detective fiction, written by Priyanath Mukhopadhyay. Then came Girish Chandra Basu, Kaliprasanna Chattopadhyay, Bhuban Chandra Mukhopadhyay and many more. So, clearly, there were Indian writers making a go for it. Why didn’t this phenomenon then catch the fancy of the masses?
A running narrative about India is that it is a wonderfully complex, perplexing even, country. Is this why readers here reject crime fiction? Because our real lives are filled with enough chaos, and the news with enough crime, that we don’t feel the need to be transported to fictional worlds filled with ineffable mysteries.
An interesting fact to note is that most of the recognised and globally awarded work by Indian or Indian-origin writers comes under the aegis of literary or historical fiction and is helmed by wildly popular names such as Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Chitra B. Divakaruni. This trend, to a certain extent, might influence the reading and even writing choices of those who have been conditioned to assume that anything championed by the West is best, and the rest not worth their time.
When women write crime
Speaking of trends, women crime writers are stirring up the genre. While books have always been an inclusive, gender-neutral space for me, over the years I’ve grown to particularly enjoy the delicious complexity with which women write thrillers. The intrigue brought on by a Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, Stephen King or a David Baldacci, have been as exciting as a Ruth Rendell or Dorothy L. Sayers or Patricia Highsmith, but in the garb of a gripping story, the latter subtly train their lens on important debates in society — from crime against women to sexuality, consent, misogyny and exploitation.
Industry experts will also acknowledge their contribution in fuelling the growth of a genre that was for too long considered a male bastion. In fact, writers such as Paula Hawkins, Gillian Flynn and Lisa Jewell are credited with having birthed an entirely new sub-genre called ‘grip lit’. They have bolstered the prospects of women writers of crime and thrillers in India as well, and there are now many well-read names in the genre such as Sujata Massey, Anita Nair, Kiran Manral, Tanushree Podder, Kanchana Banerjee, Damyanti Biswas, Kalpana Swaminathan, to name a few.
Some of these books have become popular enough to head to the OTT space, which has become a lucrative avenue even for four-book-old writers like me. “While it might not translate to a direct increase in book sales, it helps authors secure future book deals,” says Sidharth Jain, the founder of The Story Ink, a leading book-to-screen agency. Asked why people seem to be watching more crime than reading it, Jain says, “Binge is the keyword in the OTT space. A constant hook is essential for this, and episodic thrillers naturally lend themselves to this requirement.”
While the fundamentals of the genre remain the same, writers are now willing to experiment. Stories set in small towns, with their charms and complexities, no longer shy of showcasing their diversity and roots, make for a new and fertile creative canvas, much like the kind of world I’ve created in my Kanpur Khoofiya series.
We have always had a penchant for prophesies and while some will have you believe that books are dying, and thrillers, a more gruesome death, don’t believe it. While admitting that crime doesn’t sell too well, Swati Daftuar, Executive Editor-Commercials, HarperCollins India, is hopeful. “The numbers are only growing, and while there are excellent international thrillers hitting the Indian market every day, we do have brilliant crime writers, new and established, on the home front, too.”
As long as it is in our nature to enjoy being surprised, thrilled and to solve puzzles that life won’t let us, these books will get written, even sold. The future looks bright.
The writer is an author, most recently of ‘The Curse of Kuldhara’ (Black Ink/ HarperCollins, 2022).