In an earlier article, I had written about the lack of Indian crime fiction when I was growing up. We had plugged that gap by turning to western authors – Christie, Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, Erle Stanley Gardner, and other giants of crime fiction. The lacuna had kept gnawing at the back of my mind, and had eventually pushed me to write crime fiction set in India. That paucity of local crime fiction had continued until a decade ago. How much has that changed now? In this article, I’ll try to offer a glimpse of today’s Indian crime fiction space.
Before I do that, let me step back and look at India as a setting for fiction. The first thing that hits you between the eyes is the unparalleled diversity. Rich, multi-dimensional heterogeneity that stems from a multitude of old cultures and kingdoms that had once dotted the subcontinent. Take languages for instance. The 2018 census found that the country had 19,569 mother tongues (languages and dialects). After eliminating regional variations, this came down to 121 languages that were spoken by 10,000 people or more. This rivals Europe in its entirety, which has 24 official languages against India’s 22.
Language is but one aspect of diversity. When we start considering multiple religions, castes, climates, beliefs, prejudices, cuisines, customs, festivals, clothing, social mores, music, art and architecture, the complexity grows even more interesting. With variations aplenty, each state has its own peculiarities.
Add to this the wide economic spectrum (from slums to opulent mansions coexisting side-by-side), access to education (from the illiterate to Nobel Laureates), politics (heaven knows how many parties we have), the impact of globalization, soaring aspirations and prosperity, a vibrant corporate world, unbridled greed and what not, and the mosaic becomes truly fascinating.
But how relevant is this to crime fiction? I believe it adds to the richness and complexity. Let me illustrate.
Take an imaginary household in an Indian city and make it the subject of a fictional murder mystery. Apart from the usual suspects in friends and relatives, we have a slew of other “persons of interest”. There is a whole bunch of helpers who legitimately enter the house – the maid (or two), the driver, the gardener, the man who irons clothes, the boy who cleans the car, the woman who delivers milk, the man who delivers drinking water, the grocer, the vegetable-seller, the postman, and maybe a few more. Not to mention the inquisitive busybody next door and the nosy parker’s kids who have a free run of the neighbourhood. Add the music teacher and the yoga instructor who come home thrice a week. Put these characters into the story and imagine the varied milieus a writer can generate with them!
Then consider the conflicts and the range of motives that can arise from the diversity mentioned above – financial, religious, social, cultural, and so on. The writer can dream up so many reasons to kill! Further, add murder weapons – from crude rat poison (freely available) to venomous snakes (if you know where to get them), from machetes (also freely available) to hacked cars, from dangerous prescription drugs (often dispensed without a prescription) to tampered electricity wiring, to name a few. There was a true case last year wherein a man tried to kill his wife with a deadly Russell’s viper. When she survived after a 52-day battle at a hospital, he used an even more lethal cobra and succeeded. In court, the police demonstrated the difference between a natural snakebite and an induced one! Brilliant!
Finally, consider the locale. What if we move the setting from a city to the sparsely populated hills (A Will to Kill) or a forest or a riverside in the hinterland (A Dire Isle)? Or to a castle or resort in the Himalayas (Praying Mantis)? Or to a poverty-stricken village? To a temple or mosque? To any of the myriad festivals that dot our calendar? On Holi, for instance, when revellers splash vivid colours on each other, fresh blood would go unnoticed. Gunshots would be missed among the firecracker blasts on Diwali.
The possibilities are endless and are limited by only the writer’s imagination. This is the promise that Indian crime fiction holds, and it’s up to us writers to exploit it. Now, with this background, let us take a look at the nascent crime fiction scene here. We’ll do that by visiting a bookstore. Imagine you are visiting it after several years.
The first thing you notice is a change in how the fiction shelves are organised. There is a large, new shelf that wasn’t there a few years ago. It is labelled “Indian Writing” and offers a variety of genres. Its pride of place signifies its importance among the shelves. A bookstore near my house in Chennai even has a sub-shelf titled “Chennai Authors”.
The last decade has witnessed an explosion of sorts in Indian writing. Large numbers have taken to writing all sorts of fiction. Ours is an old civilization with a very long history of storytelling. What is new now is that people are writing in English.
So, what are they writing? Mostly romance and mythological fiction. Romance is a staple the world over and India is no different – it sells in large numbers. However, mythological fiction is an Indian peculiarity. India’s rich and sprawling mythology provides endless source material and thousands of characters to be exploited, reimagined and recast for the modern audience. Thereafter, each tale can be retold from yet another character’s viewpoint. With Indians’ enduring love for their mythology, this is not an opportunity that writers are letting pass by.
Crime fiction, unfortunately, comes a distant third after these two genres. Writers and publishers alike find it a tough sale compared to the two larger genres. Even so, the numbers are not insignificant. With no reliable public statistics about Indian fiction, one must rely on anecdotal evidence. In the last few years, I have sampled over a hundred Indian crime writers. Even so, I have read but a minority of the new writers. It is on this sample (and on some conversations) that I base my impressions.
The leading subgenre in crime is the thriller. There is a distinct bias for overt action. Gangland crime, political rivalries, terrorism and espionage offer different flavours in addition to the general crime thriller. Legal, medical or corporate thrillers are far fewer. That’s because there aren’t many writers who have the requisite background. Merely setting a story in the business or medical world doesn’t make it a corporate or a medical thriller. The crime must be specific to that area and there must be some specialist depth.
The big-city, violent thriller is popular not just among readers, but also with filmmakers. These stories seem to satisfy the demand for fictional violence in familiar urban surroundings (which is where most of our writers and readers live). They are often set in metropolises like Mumbai and Delhi, tend to be dark and sordid, and frequently explore the underbelly of these cities. They often involve organised crime and politics. The recent success of one such story on Netflix has spawned a new wave of violent thrillers.
Unsurprisingly, a certain sameness has now crept in. “There is fatigue now,” says Sid Jain of Story Ink, who helps bring books to the screen. “We are getting more and more of the same stuff. We must go beyond stereotypes and write stories that take the audience to new, inaccessible worlds. We need more insight into these worlds.”
I concur. However, my experience of writing corporate thrillers brought out multiple challenges. Firstly, how do I make a complex white-collar crime accessible to the lay reader who doesn’t understand finance, stocks, technology or fraud? I can’t oversimplify it and put off the savvy corporate citizen. It’s indeed a difficult balance. Secondly, how do I make the book profitable for the publisher when not many readers are keen on complex crimes that requires them to concentrate?
After thrillers, the other major subgenre is the murder mystery. This is what I have turned to with my Harith Athreya series. I must say that we have some delightful whodunnits set in India. Some are set in the Mughal or British period and offer an additional layer of charm. There are several murder mysteries set in contemporary India too, and some of them are set in fictional or real small towns. But unfortunately, whodunnits aren’t very profitable in India (low sale volumes), and that is putting the brakes on this subgenre.
The third subgenre, which seems to have more demand than supply, is true crime. “Stories based on true crime seem to be the way to go,” says Premnath Rajagopalan of Blue Monkey Films. “Films about scams are also gaining in popularity.” He expects this trend to continue for the next 3-4 years.
So, that was a glimpse of the Indian Writing shelf in a bookstore. Stepping back from the shelf and glancing around the bookstore, you see that the advent of the Indian Writing shelf has been at the expense of other shelves. They are fewer now. Then comes the realisation that the overall number of bookshelves has also fallen. The shop now sells more of other items than before – gift articles, stationery, toys, etc. Why? A quiet chat with the store manager suggests that selling books is no longer very profitable. Both offtake and margins have dipped. Is it because of the Amazon phenomenon that has moved a large part of the sales online? Partly. There’s a deeper problem as well.
Lack of Demand
“A woeful lack of demand for fiction in India makes it very difficult for publishers to break out writers regardless of genre,” says Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary. “And by extension this applies to crime fiction as well. Because of this, with remorse, I decline representation to many aspiring crime writers.”
“Crime fiction has also suffered due to bookshops shutting down and the consequent fall in discoverability,” adds Prerna Vohra, Associate Publisher, Bloomsbury India. “People still want to read crime fiction, but they end up reading either global bestsellers or whatever is top on Amazon’s lists. Debut authors especially find it hard to break out in such a crowded market.”
The lack of demand doesn’t hit new writers alone. Even established ones are affected. One popular mystery writer who was earlier published by a large, global publisher has now self-published his latest mystery. This is indeed sad as he is one of those who crafts original mysteries.
One can’t blame the publishers either – the volumes are just not there. While we have far more writers than before, few of them sell any significant number of copies. With low margins and lower sales, publishers’ economics just don’t work out, unless film rights are optioned. Consequently, traditional publishers end up declining crime fiction submissions.
Into this gap have stepped in a slew of vanity publishers. These firms make their money by charging writers, and not by selling books to readers. They earn their profit even before the first copy is sold. There is no barrier to entry for the writer who is willing to pay their fees.
So, this is sketch of the nascent crime fiction scene in India. Stories and writers are not in short supply. Nor are publishers. But readers are. We are lamentably short of readers. For the Indian crime fiction scene to flourish, we need more people to read for pleasure. However, we do have a silver lining: there is fresh interest from overseas publishers for Indian mysteries. How much that will help remains to be seen.
With luck, the new readers who currently consume romance and mythological fiction will expand their patronage to crime fiction and provide the genre the necessary boost. Just as British mysteries and Scandinavian noir have carved niches of their own, we might see Indian noir carving one for itself in the coming years.