Literary Review

‘Inspector Gowda is my alter ego’

“I didn’t think I had the confidence to aspire to be a writer,” says Anita Nair. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

“I didn’t think I had the confidence to aspire to be a writer,” says Anita Nair. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

With Chain of Custody , Anita Nair proves again that she is the Number No. 1 female crime writer in the Indian pulp fiction scene today. She paints her heroes against the gritty backdrop of the city’s darker, less tidy corners. Even before this new novel, Nair was a household name, the closest there is to a Shobhaa De in Bengaluru, with her five-star-hotel book launches. If you ask in any bookshop in the city, as I did, you will find that her books sell like hot cakes. But when I get in touch with her, before prior to the book release, I’m surprised to hear that she is taking a quiet monsoon break in her native village in Kerala where the Internet barely reaches. Excerpts from an interview:

As a child growing up in a village, did you imagine you might one day become one of India’s most famous novelists?

All I remember is that I started writing at a very young age, stringing words and phrases together. I wrote my first poem when I was seven. I come from a family where everybody paints or is musically inclined. So, if I had produced a Monet-like painting or burst into raga vistharam , it would have been accepted as the family genes popping up. But there were no writers in the family. So when I showed my poem to my mother and brother, they promptly asked me to write another because they refused to believe I had written it. We didn’t do words. At which point, I became a closet writer, writing in secret for a very long time. I read voraciously and the gods I worshipped those days were writers. And I was so much in awe of these writerly gods that I didn’t think I had the confidence to aspire to be one among them.

So what brought you to crime fiction?

What attracts me to the genre is how it allows me to make social commentary. Perhaps it all began with the appearance of two fully-formed characters in my mind — Bhuvana and Inspector Gowda. However, I had no clear idea how to bring them together and, given that I usually wrote about suburban and rural India, a combo of a transvestite and an unconventional cop character would have been hard to fit in that milieu. It was then I realised that I had unknowingly created characters that were perfect for a crime novel set in a big city. Cut-like Wound was my first piece of crime writing and it was pretty much like learning to swim in the deep end.

Did you read a lot of detective stories?

Strangely enough I hadn’t read any serious crime fiction until I finished Cut Like Wound .

How come?

I have a congenital flaw as a reader; after a few pages, I get anxious about how the book will end because I start empathising with the characters too much. I go to the last page to figure out if my favourite characters are still alive and happy. Naturally, it ruins the book for me and so I gave up reading crime. In fact, now that I write crime, I make sure the climax is always a few pages before the last page. Just in case there is an impatient reader like me out there.

So, no crime at all in your bookshelf?

In recent times, some crime writers I have read extensively and loved are Ian Rankin, Peter James, Mark Billingham, Michael Robotham, Henning Mankell, Thomas Harris and Karin Slaughter.

And what about Indian crime fiction?

Here, crime fiction is still in its primary stage. It will go global when the characters and issues written about start having greater dimensions than just the usual run-of-the-mill crime procedural and puzzle solving. I am yet to read an Indian detective novel.

Do you consider crime fiction pure entertainment or might it have a therapeutic function in today’s society? One reads in the papers about murders almost every day…

While I do try to work in entertaining factors purely to amuse myself — hey, I need to get some kicks and laughs out of it too — my reason for writing crime is not to be this judgemental creature pointing out social ills, but to address the darkness that is part of our society; a darkness that we seem to be in denial about or are unwilling to accept as the reality of our lives.

What attracted you to Shivaji Nagar as the setting for your first novel about Inspector Gowda? And again, in the sequel, Shivaji Nagar features as an important scene.

In the 26 years I have lived in Bengaluru, my homes were located in the Cantonment area, starting from Cox Town to Fraser Town and Cooke Town. Every Sunday, my husband and I go to Russel Market for our weekly shopping. Naturally, I became familiar with the place, and started discovering little nooks and interesting elements. Shivaji Nagar and the north of M.G. Road is my beat, my peta , my halli , my ooru , my jagaa ....

And did you base Inspector Gowda on some real detective or policeman you met there?

In many ways, Inspector Gowda is my male alter ego. And so, many things I would like to do, I do it vicariously through Borei Gowda. Naturally, a female detective wouldn’t serve the purpose. So, no, Inspector Gowda is not based on any real policeman. I wish though... I might have run away with him. My real-life experiences with policemen have been very limited. I have met and interacted with several senior police officers and policemen from the ranks as well. Most of them impressed me immensely and in all honesty, a few of them made me want to laugh at their pomposity and a few others I wanted to kick for their churlishness. When I was building Inspector Gowda’s psyche, I knew for certain that all cops didn’t have to be the boorish creatures they are made out to be. Some of them are wonderful human beings and work tirelessly to make things right, and I was certain Gowda would be one of them.

Of course in your latest novel, you also introduce a feisty and interesting policewoman — will she feature in more books?

I guess my feminist gene decided to kick in and demanded to be taken notice of and thus, out of nowhere, Ratna appeared. And yes, she is definitely going to feature in all the books I write about Gowda. She is perhaps my young woman alter ego. All of this would get a psychiatrist’s knickers in a twist!

I noticed you thanked lots of people at the end of the book, specifically people who work with children at risk. Can you tell something about that?

Once I had decided that I was going to write about child trafficking, I started talking to various people in the field, including senior police officers who were in anti-trafficking squads. I needed to gather as much information as possible before I wrote even a line; so I went to rescue units, shelters, talked to social workers, met abused children and did everything I thought I ought to do to understand the problem at multiple levels. I began the book after I observed a trafficker at a shelter. He was little more than a youth himself and it seemed to me he was merely taking forward what had happened to him. In fact, the story of Tina in Chain of Custody is based on a real-life account I was privy to and it shattered me. I remember coming home that afternoon and being unable to eat or drink or even speak to anyone. I sat in a dark room unwilling to step out and all through I kept thinking that if this is what hearing the story has done to me, what must be the state of the child I talked to. How would anyone get past what she had endured? She might have escaped the trafficker, but would she ever really be able to get past the trauma and anguish, the fear and depravity.

And you had an idea for a plot?

I don’t plot my crime novels meticulously in the beginning but neither do I leave it to wander any which way my imagination takes, which means I begin with a loosely formed structure in my head that becomes an almost full blueprint half-way through the writing. Once done, the fact checking and timelines are examined carefully.

Pencil or laptop?

I write using a fountain pen in a long, hardbound notebook.

That’s very old-style! How long is a typical writing shift?

It is connected to my fountain pen. I fill ink in the pen in the morning and write till it runs dry. So on a good day, about a 1,000 words and on a bad day, it could just be a few sentences.

Tea or coffee? Surely not Old Monk?

Neither tea nor coffee, neither whiskey nor Old Monk. Since I usually write in the morning, it’s just water that I keep sipping.

That’s wholesome. I couldn’t write a sentence without my Coorg coffee. So that means you are a disciplined writer?

Yes, I am very disciplined. In fact, the days I don’t write I am in a foul mood and out of sorts with myself and the world.

What do you do if you get a writer’s block then?

The best remedy is to stop worrying about it and catch a movie or two on consecutive days. Basically, it’s just giving the writing muscle some rest while other parts of your mind are still active and making connections.

How does it feel to be a writer in Bengaluru? Do you ever feel cut off from the global literary market place? Or the Delhi hot-shot scene?

In fact, what I like about Bengaluru is how it allows a writer enough breathing space and keeps me out of literary coteries, cliques and other such Bloomsbury-ian quagmires. Thanks to the Net, I have writer and publishing friends all over the world, who I am in touch with on a regular basis.

Favourite bookshop?

Bookworm, whose owner Krishna Gowda I am very fond of, and Blossoms, run by Mayi Gowda and Karunakar, where I can get both old and new books. I like old books — the feel of them, the sweet musty smell and the thought that these books have passed through other hands before reaching mine.

What’s your best advice for an aspiring crime writer?

Show the workings, like someone said somewhere, and for the life of me, I can’t remember the reference.

Zac O’Yeah’s latest comic detective novel set in Bengaluru is the bestselling Hari, a Hero for Hire.


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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 2:19:00 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/%E2%80%98Inspector-Gowda-is-my-alter-ego%E2%80%99/article14466860.ece