Talking Location With author Leigh Russell – YORK
Crime mystery set in Mumbai, plus Q&A with author Vaseem Khan
19th April 2016
The Unexpected inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan, crime mystery set in Mumbai.
I can say without fear of contradiction that I am an expert in the tribulations faced by murder investigators in England and Scotland (you’d think they’d be the same but they’re not), Sweden, Norway and Denmark (ditto), the US, Botswana and Italy. You could set me an exam comparing and contrasting ways to establish times of death, types of murder weapons and methods of criminal profiling in these countries and I flatter myself that I’d stand a fair chance of passing.
Having established my credentials, believe me when I say that The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan is a worthy addition to the genre. Indeed, for fans of the popular series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, I can say that Inspector Ashwin Chopra is the Precious Ramotswe of the Indian sub-continent – and I mean that in the most positive way. Like her, he’s incorruptible in a corrupt environment, wise where others are foolish, modest among crowds of flashy ne’er-do-wells and, like all good detectives excepting that old bore Hercule Poirot, he has got his share of family troubles to remind us that despite his talent for taking down villains, he’s human after all.
In The Unexpected inheritance of Inspector Chopra, not only do we get to spend time with this appealing hero, we get to experience the sights and sounds of Mumbai, although luckily without being exposed to its heat and smells. We learn a little about the problems facing modern India, its chaotic streets, its cut-throat politics, the scale of poverty and the near impossibility of avoiding corruption. In short, we make the acquaintance of the ugly side of this gigantic city, which, judging from this novel is a city where people happily dispose of each other in rather gruesome ways.
However, Mumbai is also an energetic, confident, inventive city – and what with what strikes me as more than a passing similarity to a hot Dickensian London a hundred and fifty years on. Despite the corpses and the guns the overall tone of the book is warm, human and domestic and as if that isn’t enough to make you want to read it, you also get to make the acquaintance of a baby elephant who may or may not be a reincarnation of the hero’s uncle.
I challenge you not to be charmed.
Gwyneth for the TripFiction Team
Over to Vaseem who has kindly agreed to answer our questions….
TF: In our review we refer to Inspector Ashwin Chopra as an “appealing hero”. When you first set out to create your character, what where the fundamental character elements you wanted him to have? Could you visualise him or did he develop as the story progressed?
VK: Inspector Ashwin Chopra came to me almost fully formed. From the outset I wanted him to be a resolutely honest man, to stand in stark contrast to the common perception that the Indian police service is rife with corruption. I also wanted him to be a man who hankers for ‘old India’, a man who values tradition. Yet, at the same time, he is a realist, and cares deeply about the social ills that continue to plague his country. Readers have told me they are glad I haven’t shied away from depicting such gritty realities in these books – they add a layer of authenticity to contrast with the humour in the novels. Inevitably bits of Chopra’s character are my own – his aversion to ginger, his passion for cricket, and, above all, his desire to see justice done in a country where often wealth and power means you can escape the consequences of your actions.
TF: You have included a little elephant in the storyline and I gather he becomes a fixed feature in the next book in the series. Not the easiest creature to accommodate in Mumbai. How did you alight on this idea for the book?
VK: Ganesha – the one-year-old baby elephant – is indeed a fixture in the series. He is sent to Chopra by his long lost uncle Bansi. But Bansi doesn’t reveal why he is sending him an elephant or anything about Ganesha’s background. This is a mystery that will be revealed slowly over the course of the series. Bansi does say – in a letter – that Ganesha ‘is no ordinary elephant’. These words prove prophetic as Chopra discovers there is more to little Ganesha than meets the eye.
You could say the idea for the elephant was born on my first day in India. I went there aged 23 to work with a company building eco hotels around the country. I remember vividly walking out from Bombay airport, into a wall of sizzling hot air, and the first thing I saw set the scene for me – a group of lepers and beggars milling about the taxi rank. At the first traffic junction we stopped at I looked into a mind-boggling river of passing traffic and there, lumbering along the road I saw an enormous grey Indian elephant with a mahout on its back! This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually became a part of the novel I wrote when I returned to England ten years later.
TF: In January 2016 The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was chosen for the Waterstones Book Club. What impact did that have on you and the book?
VK: More than anything the book’s success (it was also named as a Daily Telegraph Pick of the Week, became a top 10 bestseller in The Times Saturday review, and was selected by Amazon as one of its best debuts of the year) made me happy that many more people would now be able to share my wonderful memories of India, which I encapsulate in these books. I set off to take readers on a journey to modern India, to show you what it looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like and even tastes like. The lovely people at the Waterstones Book Club – and others such as yourself and your TripFiction readers! – are helping to spread the word and bring that journey to others, and for this I am truly grateful.
TF: The next Inspector Chopra book will be out shortly – The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown – what can we expect from no. 2 in the series?
VK: The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown is about the theft of the world’s most famous diamond – the Koh-i-noor, which was originally mined in India, and then given to Queen Victoria during the Raj. The Koh-i-noor is currently part of the British Crown Jewels. In my novel the Crown Jewels have been brought to India for a special exhibition. A daring robbery sees the Koh-i-noor stolen and Chopra and Ganesha are called in to try and recover the great diamond. In this book we also see the relationship between Chopra and Ganesha grow, the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency find its footing, new characters introduced, and more of Mumbai explored!
The idea for this story came to me while I was visiting the Prince of Wales museum in Mumbai. I had been looking at artifacts from all eras of India’s past, from the ancient Indus Valley civilization, through to the Mughal empire, and the 300 years of the British Raj, when I came across a group of Indians talking about the ‘things the British had stolen’ from the subcontinent. This was the first time I had come across such sentiments, and I realized once again that history depends on whose perspective we are viewing it from. I’d previously only seen the Koh-i-noor in the Tower of London, where it is a major tourist attraction, so it was intriguing to see it being spoken about as a piece of stolen heritage from a sovereign democracy. It really got me thinking …
TF: The cover of the book is really eye catching. How much input did you have into what the book would look like?
VK: Both book covers are wonderful and are the work of Hodder designer Anna Woodbine. With The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra I wanted warm, bold, vibrant colours to reflect life on the subcontinent … and also an elephant! The magnificent moustache was a bonus. The cover made for a wonderful recent poster campaign on the London Underground Tube system.
TF: Mumbai just comes to colourful life in the book. What are your top tips for visitors to the city? Any current special eating places you would like to share with our readers, for example?
VK: Mumbai is an eternal city. It is constantly changing but its soul will always remain quintessentially Indian. The city was once a series of seven islands occupied by Koli fisherman until the Portuguese established a trading centre there in 1534. A century later the territory was gifted to King Charles II of England who leased the islands to the East India Company which transformed the islands into a city. By the end of the 1700s Bombay, with its deepwater port and established trade routes, was the ‘Gateway to India’. In 1995 Bombay was rechristened, after Mumbadevi, the stone goddess of the original Koli fishermen. Today 20 million live in the city. People’s lives are a blend of modern and traditional sensibilities, as is the architecture – Mumbai, like most metros in India, is facing a cultural onslaught from westernisation – which brings both good and bad, as I describe in my novel. What remains a constant is how warm and friendly everyone is.
Vaseem’s Top tips for Mumbai:
Drink bottled water, eat street food with care, use autorickshaws in the suburbs, check out the Taj Palace Hotel, Elephanta Caves, Film City, Prince of Wales Museum, Inorbit Mall, the Dharavi slum.
Mumbai is a gastronome’s paradise. I recommend:
· Punjabi dhabas – to taste truly authentic Punjabi Indian food – tandoori chicken, nan bread, butter chicken – eat at a traditional dhaba.
· Leopold Café is a Mumbai landmark and features in The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown. It has a range of delicious Indian and continental cuisine and is a good place to stop when exploring south Mumbai. http://www.leopoldcafe.com/index.htm
· Mumbai is a coastal city so there are great seafood restaurants. Try Maharasthran-style seafood at Gajalee – especially the crab.
· In a country where almost half the people are vegetarians a vegetarian thali (many dishes in one tray) at the legendary Status Restaurant in Nariman Point is a must.
· Mumbai street food – if you can stomach it. Mumbai’s street food is amazing ranging from steamed rice cakes called ‘idli’ to chicken lollipops. You can find some great pictures of Mumbai street food on my Pinterest Board
Thank you to Vaseem Khan for wonderful answers and a vicarious trip to Mumbai!
London, April 2016