Journalist & writer Tarquin Hall is popular for his creation – Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator. He speaks to Sapna Sarfare about the character, writing, popularity & much more
Over the years, I have realised that writing is not an easy job. If you are an author writing in another country, the task is humungous. You have the locals to please, apart from staying away from any prejudices. Amongst successful authors residing & writing in India writing is British journalist & writer Tarquin Hall who has been associated with India through his journalistic work. Having done some impressive features, he has several articles to his name in British newspapers & magazines.
Most Indians identify him as the creator of Vish Puri, a Dilliwala who happens to be India’s Most Private Investigator. Starting from his first Vish Puri mystery novel The Case of the Missing Servant (2009), he has cultivated a fan following with three more novels – The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (2010), The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (2012) and The Case of the Love Commandos (2013). Busy man that he is, a short & sweet email interview introduces the man behind the pen.
This half-British & half-American writer is married to an Indian. His childhood & later writing led him to different places. One is sure that this must have had a profound effect over his writing & general outlook. Tarquin reveals, “My parents always mixed with lots of people from different countries when I was a kid and up until the age of 10, I was in schools in London with kids from all over. My mother hung curtains in my bedroom with caricatures of children from Europe, America, Asia, the Middle East, etc. I guess her aim was to emphasise that we are all members of a larger community. I also had a godfather who collected folk tales from all over the world and recorded them on audiocassette and I often listened to them. My father would also read me store from World Tales by Idries Shah, which I loved.”
In his words, despite growing up in England, he learnt the important fact that there is a whole world out there to explore and that we share the same planet & common humanity in every way possible. “The moment I turned 18 I was off, I wanted to see all of it.” Larger causes are in smaller things, indeed.
Vish Puri connected with Indian readers quickly. One cannot imagine of how a character like Vish Puri came up. To quote Tarquin, Vish Puri owes his existence to his inspiration from real life detectives interviewed while writing an article for The Sunday Times in UK. His article was on Indian detectives investigating for parents on prospective brides & grooms in arranged marriages. “What came across to me was how these detectives were dealing with any number of incredible, unlikely & sometimes downright bizarre cases as well. I did not think when I was doing the story that I would take it further and start writing detective novels. In fact, I had never really considered doing fiction. One day in London, I was walking along the street and suddenly thought to myself, “You know what? This is a brilliant way to describe modern India today”. I dashed into a shop, bought a notebook and started outlining the character, his helpers and the bare bones of the first case. That’s how Vish was born.”
Vish Puri stories might seem typical. Dig deep and his stories amuse people, interest them and get them involved in the story at once. Writers find it tough to avoid clichés and just write what they think is right. Tarquin begs to differ. “In some ways, I don’t mind dealing in generalisations. I think they’re very useful for people to grasp the basic about a society. I honestly try not to be too hung up on what other people consider authentic. However, I do try to make the books ring true as much as possible, while accepting the fact that I’m an outsider and am mostly writing for other outsiders. My aim is to interest people in India, show them what a complex & extraordinary place it is, and how much it’s changing is some ways and not in others. I try to pack the books with different aspects of the culture & cultural phenomenon each time. The plot is always secondary to that,” he divulges.
Success has come well for Vish Puri. Tarquin has been getting mails & messages on social media about the books’ popularity. “When the first book came out, I was terrified that Indian readers would hate it. You never know how people are going to react. It’s one thing sitting on your own bashing away at a keyboard but then suddenly your words are published, they’re out there and others can read them. And you think, oh crap, what are they going to make of it? But I’ve had so many Indian readers write to me or tell me how much they’ve enjoyed or even loved the series that I feel very comfortable now. I think generally they emphasise with Vish Puri because he’s a decent man having to deal with obstacles that they recognise. They like the humour, too. If they’re especially from northern India, they’ve all got an uncle like VP - a thoroughly honest bloke – a bit pompous and very fond of his khaana & the odd non-veg joke,” he happily writes.
Vish Puri mystery books are not Tarquin’s only claim to fame. He has a few books on Indian sub-continent too. There is that non-fiction book To the Elephant Graveyard which speaks about his journey in Assam with Dinesh Choudhury, an elephant hunter. He recounts, “I wrote it because it was an incredible adventure and I had a lot to say about the plight of elephants & the way nature is under assault. I suppose there was quite a bit in there about human nature as well. The other book you are referring to is Salaam Brick Lane. That is about my time living in the London’s East End amongst a mostly immigrant population. It was conceptualised in the sense that I lived through that experience and then decided to write a book about it.”
Having caught our imagination, Tarquin is finally coming out with yet another creation. His next book, The Delhi Detective’s Handbook, has just got over. “I should say Vish Puri has completed it as it’s entirely written in his voice. It’s been tremendous fun to do. There are sections on the history of spycraft in India, the best disguises, how to trail people through Indian traffic, how to grow a proper moustache. There’s also a section on where to find the best snack food when conducting a stakeout. It is going to be out soon. Meanwhile, I have been working on other projects. I have come up with four new Puri novel ideas and am aiming to get to work on the next soon. The working title is The Case of the Bombay Duck.”
Some writers just know what readers want. Tarquin Hall is one of such successful gentleman. Lucky, eh!