Great Indian Novels #7: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

I first read E.M. Forster’s masterwork whilst living in India. The book instantly grabbed hold of me, not just because of its sublime writing and stylistic brilliance, but because of the themes it set out to explore. A Passage to India was published in 1924 and set against the backdrop of the gathering Indian independence movement. The story centres on four characters: Dr. Aziz; his British friend Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore; and a young schoolmistress, Miss Adela Quested, newly arrived in India, ostensibly to marry a boorish young Englishman. 

During a trip to the (fictitious) Marabar Caves, Adela mistakenly believes that she is caught alone with Dr. Aziz in one of the caves. She becomes dizzy, panics, and flees in terror. It is assumed that Dr. Aziz has attempted to assault her, a charge that ends with Aziz being put on trial by the British. This trial and its aftermath serve to bring sharply into focus the simmering racial tension between Indians and their British overseers. 

At the heart of the novel is Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor. At the beginning of the novel Aziz debates with friends about whether it is truly possible for an Indian to be the friend of an Englishman. By the end of the novel, having suffered as a result of the ingrained prejudice of the British towards the ‘natives’, he is left in a thoroughly disillusioned state. His earlier attempts to help Adela find the ‘real’ India – his own naïve means of advancing a bridge between the colonialists and their ‘subjects’ – has backfired spectacularly, shattering his belief in those qualities he might have been willing to ascribe to the British: a sense of fair play and justice. Such is his bitterness that when he is visited at the close of the novel by his friend Fielding, he is forced to utter: “I am an Indian at last.” This despite the fact that Fielding is the only Englishman to have attempted to help him. Forster’s suggestion appears to be that the two men can never truly be friends until the British depart the subcontinent. 

A Passage to India is a searing portrayal of the racist attitudes endemic to the British in India and the many ways in which the native Indian population was oppressed by a foreign administration. With the exception of Fielding, none of the British characters in the novel believe in Aziz’s innocence. Aziz’s guilt appears in no doubt to them, because the word of an Englishwoman is always to be believed over the word of an Indian. Indeed, the chief of police openly declares that the Indian character is inherently criminal.

The novel is based on Forster’s experiences in India, and the moral dilemma he saw at the heart of the Raj. He admits to suffering great emotional turmoil in its writing. Indeed, he abandoned the project on several occasions only to be drawn back to it time and again. On publication, the book was greeted with rave reviews and spectacular popularity. Some, however, have criticized his portrayal of India and Indians as unflattering and shallow.

The effort of writing the book appeared to exhaust him. He died 46 years later, having never written again. Not that he needed to. A Passage to India was selected as one of the 100 great works of 20th century literature by the Modern Library, and Time Magazine included it in its list of “All Time 100 Novels”. (The book was filmed in 1984, another David Lean epic that was nominated for eleven Oscars.) For me these accolades are well deserved. This is a genuine literary masterpiece about a particularly factious period on the subcontinent.

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

Virtue Signalling: what is it exactly and is it even real?

Recently, the new Director General of the BBC took the unprecedented step of explicitly telling BBC employees that they must avoid “virtue-signalling”. Specifically, staff working in the news division have been told not to express views on matters of current political debate, or publicly supporting campaigns “no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial.”

The term “virtue signalling” has now entered the public lexicon. It is used, invariably, as a slur. (Anyone remember Piers Morgan calling TV presenter Jameela Jamil a ‘virtue signalling twerp’ during an online spat about the royal family?) Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of hypocrisy, of appearing to promote their concern for a particular cause when, in truth, all they are really doing is displaying their plumage, shouting to the world ‘look at how virtuous I am because I support this cause!’ 

Wikipedia defines virtue signalling as a “pejorative neologism for the conspicuous and disingenuous expression of moral values with the intent to enhance one’s own image”. In 2015, a Spectator magazine popularised the term, criticising those who say or write things to make clear they are “admirably non-racist, leftwing or open-minded” without actually doing anything to change the world. The author of that piece, James Bartholomew, suggested that virtue signalling is driven by ‘vanity and self-aggrandisement’, not actual concern for others.

Some of this may indeed be true. We can all think of instances where people’s expressed concern for certain issues doesn’t align with their actions or the image they have hitherto presented to the world. In a piece I recently wrote on cultural appropriation, I highlighted the instance of Bollywood film stars in India who had tweeted messages of support for the BlackLivesMatter movement – only to be then called out for their long-running promotion of skin-lightening creams.

In a 2019 article by Neil Levy first published in Aeon Magazine, he states that the philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke label virtue signallers as ‘moral grandstanders’ and suggest that such activity perverts the function of public moral discourse which, when done right, ‘spurs moral improvement in the world’. Virtue signallers, however, ‘cheapen’ such discourse by shifting the focus from the problem onto themselves, resulting in general cynicism for the actual cause.

But this isn’t the whole story. Recently, some have begun to question the legitimacy of the term itself. 

The problem with using virtue signalling as a means of denigrating someone’s actions is that it is impossible to know, with certainty, any individual’s true level of commitment, concern, or intent. After all, who can truly see inside someone else to accurately judge their integrity?

Some suggest that, increasingly, the term is being employed to undermine all moral acts. For instance, many of those expressing support for the climate activist Greta Thunberg have been accused of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, of racing to be the first to align themselves with her so that some of her virtue rubs off, coating them in a sort of climate-activism glamour. No doubt some are. But whether some may actually believe in the cause or be genuine in their commitment to environmental issues seems to have been deemed irrelevant. 

As I see it, the root problem with the term is that it is a blunt instrument, unable to pick out those actions that, in another age, we would have simply called ‘virtuous’. Many things that we do, or opinions that we express, are because we believe in them – for instance, supporting democratic values, positive societal change, equality – they are positions of intrinsic virtue (to us), a part of our moral make-up. Expressing such views publicly is merely an extension of our inner thoughts and feelings. Why then should we be denigrated by the label of virtue signaller? We’re fast getting to the point where anyone who takes a position in favour of a good cause is liable to be torn down moments later on social media. 

The branch of research that deals with virtue ethics tells us that human beings are obsessed by the idea of assessing the true character of their fellows. In this context, actions are less important than the individual. We judge people based on our perception of their moral values, their ethical behaviour, rather than any individual actions they may take. A good person is someone who lives virtuously. (Though, of course, the definition of virtue itself can be debated endlessly.) 

The simple truth is that we all engage in genuine acts of moral virtue all the time without ever speaking about them. Yet, at other times we also signal our alignment with moral virtue – through a tweet, Facebook post, chatting to friends at the pub – telling others that we are engaging with a particular cause, siding with a particular argument. It would be false to claim that at least some small part of us isn’t pleased by how we now expect others to perceive us – i.e. in a way we hope reflects positively on us. Indeed, the very act of me writing this article could be seen as a form of virtue signalling – here I am signalling to you how virtuous I am because I am willing to critique the term virtue signalling!

My take on the matter: let he who is without sin cast the first tweet. 

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

Diwali: a quick guide to India’s festival of lights

Today, more than a billion people all over the world are marking Diwali. Like most major religious festivals – think Christmas or Eid – in today’s world, Diwali is more than a reflection of its faith-based underpinnings; it’s a celebration of family, friendship, and community.

Having lived in India for a decade during my twenties, I experienced first-hand the annual jamboree that accompanies the ‘festival of lights’. The festival’s name derives from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that are lit in their billions inside and outside Indian homes to symbolize the spiritual light that protects us from the darkness. When combined, the Sanskrit word becomes dipavali – Diwali. 

So what is Diwali’s history? Its meaning?

As noted in a 2020 article by Amy McKeever in National Geographic, the first thing to understand is that Diwali is not exclusively celebrated by Hindus – it is also observed among Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Because of this, according to McKeever, there is no single origin story for the festival. What is common, however, is the notion of the festival representing ‘the triumph of good over evil.

Perhaps the provenance story that we are most familiar with in the West stems from northern India, where Diwali commemorates Prince Rama’s triumphant return to the city of Ayodhya following years of exile. During this time, he was faced with the task of rescuing his wife Sita who had been kidnapped by evil Lord Ravana – a tale recorded in the Hindu epic Ramayana.  Diwali is celebrated 20 days after Lord Ram is purported to have killed Ravana.

In the southern half of India, Diwali commemorates a different victory – Lord Krishna defeating the demon king Narakasura. For Sikhs, McKeever states that Diwali recalls the release of the 17th-century guru Hargobind following his imprisonment by Mughal emperor Jahangir. 

Whether or not today’s celebrants dwell on these details is irrelevant. What matters is the essential message of Diwali, a message handed down through oral and written tradition by the world’s oldest recorded religion, a message of light triumphing over darkness, of good beating out evil.

Diwali is also aligned closely with hopes of future prosperity. The festival celebrates the goddess of wealth and good fortune, Laxmi. In Mumbai, where I was based, every business – and most homes – use it to mark the start of a new financial year. 

Like other major festivals, Diwali is not confined to a single day. This five-day festival starts with Dhanteras, celebrating good luck, wealth and prosperity. On Dhanteras people buy jewellery and household utensils – it’s a bonanza for sellers of pots and pans! – because metal is believed to ward off bad luck. The house is cleaned and decorated with lamps and coloured designs known as rangolis. The next two days – known as Chhoti or ‘small’ Diwali and then Diwali ‘proper’, involve prayers, the lighting of the clay lamps, and fireworks. There’s feasting, gift-giving and charitable endeavour. Day four marks Govardhan puja, a special prayer, and the festival ends with a day dedicated to the love between siblings, specifically brothers and sisters.

This year, with lockdowns around the world and the socially distancing effects of the pandemic, Diwali has taken on a slightly different shape. Nevertheless, its central tenets remains the same: fun, family, friendship.

To all my friends currently celebrating: have a great day!

Great Indian Novels #6: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

The Life of Pi is one of those rare books that defy attempts at classification. It can be read as a literary novel par excellence (it won the Booker Prize in 2002); an adventure survival story; or a metaphysical treatise on religion.

The story is told through the voice of the eponymous Piscine “Pi” Patel, an Indian Tamil boy growing up in the city of Pondicherry. 

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Pi, now an adult living in Canada, reminisces about his childhood in India, where his father owns a zoo. Pi quickly discovers an innate curiosity for matters of a spiritual and religious nature. His innocent questioning leads to answers that are not at all satisfying. Pi is raised as a Hindu but as a teenager decides to investigate both Islam and Christianity, eventually deciding to adopt all three religions, telling his shocked parents that he “just wants to love God”. 

In the book’s second part, set in 1976, the family emigrates to Canada, in reaction to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s imposition of ‘The Emergency’, a period when the Indian constitution was suspended, now recognised as a particularly shameful chapter in the subcontinent’s tumultuous political history.

The ship the family is on sinks in a storm. Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat, his only companions, and fellow survivors, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker. A series of increasingly dazzling adventures ensue on the ocean, until the boat washes onto a beach in Mexico. All the while Pi must find a way of avoiding being devoured by the starving Richard Parker.

In the final part of the book, Pi is engaged in a conversation with officials conducting an inquiry into the shipwreck. What emerges is a parallel truth to that which actually took place on the lifeboat, a sort of twist in the tail that is both clever and frighteningly believable. 

In a 2002 interview with PBS, the author Yann Martel said: “I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small ‘s’ but sort of with a capital ‘S’ – something that would direct my life.” Martel spoke of searching for direction in his life; this book, with its reflection on human spirituality, served to give him thatdirection.

For me, this is a novel to savour. Martel’s use of language is flamboyant; he is unafraid of being playful with imagery and brings to life his marvellous range of characters, both human and animal, with wit and verve. The book has been called a magical realist fable, and Pi an “unreliable narrator”. It can also be read as a meditation on the balance between faith and science and how they might co-exist within the individual.

This is a novel that is deeply allegorical. For some readers the flights of fancy, particularly towards the latter part of the novel, might prove a literary bridge too far. I, however, delighted in Martel’s exuberance, his willingness to defy the rules, and, most importantly, in a thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written tale, a rip-roaring yarn and an intellectually immersive experience. 

And, of course, there is that tiger…

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

Chilled Monkey Brains and Snake Surprise: when popular films promote racial stereotypes

I have always loved the movies. One of my greatest pleasures when I was young was sitting in front of the box at Christmas as a parade of fantastic family films scrolled across the handful of channels we had back then: Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Disney classics by the truck-load.

Looking back, those seem to be such innocent times. Even now, I am loath to tear up the fabric of my own memories. Certainly, it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I didn’t enjoy those films, not once, but many times over. Nevertheless, sometimes it is important, in the light of experience and changing times, to re-examine tenets we have taken for granted, to tear down institutions we have held sacred, not out of a sense of victimhood or spite, but in an attempt to learn lessons and thus improve the lot of those who follow.

Thus, it is with a slightly heavy heart that I dissect some of the great films that I’ve enjoyed over the years and say to myself: hang on, that really could have been done better.  

Let’s start with one of my favourites: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indy was very popular in our house, and this second offering in the franchise seemed tailor-made for us: a British Asian family tuning in to a wholesome adventure set in India – what could be better? And yes, we did all enjoy this rip-roaring yarn, Indy battling the evil Thuggee cult, recovering the ancient Shankara stones, and saving the benighted Indian villagers from starvation. Hooray for Hollywood?

Not quite. The film has dated badly. Almost every scene of it now smacks of the patronising attitude towards other cultures long peddled by western film industries. The white saviour trope (Indy literally drops out of the sky to save these hapless village bumpkins!), the absurdly evil Thuggee (for the record, the Thugee were real and they were murderers but all nuance of their actual historical role in Indian history was lost in this portrayal; for instance, their eye-rolling worship of Kali is particularly troublesome – for millions in India the goddess Kali is far from a representation of evil), the slapstick Chinese sequence at the beginning, the cartoonishly stereotypical depictions of Indian culture. One scene, where Indy is invited to a banquet by a local prince, is particularly egregious. Diners are presented with ‘chilled monkey brain’, eyeball soup, and the lip-smackingly delicious ‘snake surprise’ – the surprise being that the snakes were still alive. Ludicrous! I lived for ten years in India and never came anywhere near a monkey brain, chilled or otherwise. (For the record, as far as I can discover, monkey brains have been historically known to have been consumed in a remote corner of ancient China, but not in India.) Snakes are feared and revered around the subcontinent, rarely eaten. 

Hollywood, of course, has plenty of form in this arena. 

From Mickey Rooney’s fanatically racist Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (complete with buck teeth and a hideous accent – Golightly pronounced as ‘Go-right-ree’ – a performance derided in many other articles), to Gone with the Wind’s enshrining into popular culture of the ‘mammy’ character, a big-bosomed, sassy-fussy slave-nanny deliriously happy with her lot. (In truth, Mammy never existed. Research has shown that most house servants of this type would have been younger black women.) 

Later, we encounter another of my favourites, Enter the Dragon, literally kicking off the Bruce Lee-inspired south Asian stereotype – suddenly every Asian in cinema was a high-kicking, hand-chopping, pseudo-philosophy-spouting expert practitioner of the martial arts. 

When Hollywood finally began to wake up to its lack of diversity it made a desultory stab at rectifying the situation – by inserting a single black character at the margins of every narrative, thus bringing forth that much lamented and now lampooned trope: Token Black Guy. For decades, the one certainty in horror films – a certainty as nailed on as death and taxes – was that Token Black Guy would be the first to bite the dust… And don’t even get me started on Nerdy Bespectacled Comic Relief Indian!

Why does any of this matter? Is it just harmless entertainment, in which case a certain license with the truth is to be expected, indeed, countenanced?

It matters because stereotypes do untold psychological damage, much of it hidden beneath the surface, like an iceberg. They promote and shore up negative perceptions and justify not only a continuing lack of equity in film but on the ground, in day-to-day life.

Back in 1922 Thomas Edison wrote: “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our education system… in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks…. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture.” 

We only have to look at how children talk, the references they use, to know that in a certain sense this is true – so many of their cultural cues come from the films they are consuming and sharing with each other through dialogue, play, even toys. With family films disproportionately aimed at younger viewers this means it is even more important to get the messaging right. A film like Indiana Jones with its chilled monkey brains and snake surprise is, at its base level, ill-informed, at its worst, a vehicle for lasting negative perceptions of another culture.

Still, that was the past. 

Hollywood is changing, and for the better. (Witness this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Parasite, a terrific Korean satire.) In years to come I look forward to nuanced portrayals of diverse characters on the silver screen. And film, as a mirror of our society, as a medium of our hopes and fears, will be all the better for it.

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

Biden, Trump, big-boy pants, and car-crash democracy: why this election result solves very little

I want you to imagine a scenario. As a nation, we have been tasked to elect a new heart surgeon. Not just any heart surgeon, but the most important heart surgeon in the country, someone who will influence the very direction that heart surgery will take and thus impact directly upon millions of lives. How would we select such a person? What would we look for? 

Well, training and education, of course. You wouldn’t want a heart surgeon fencing around inside you who hadn’t been to medical school. Common sense, a rational mind, someone who could be trusted to maintain a cool head when important decisions had to be made. Someone who could work well with others, who would try to achieve consensus, who would try to be inclusive rather than alienate. We would devise tests and means by which we would assess candidates along these dimensions, and, hopefully, after a rigorous selection process, we would elect our new national heart surgeon.

Now think about how we elect the leaders of our democracies and you will understand the inherent problem with democracy. Let me clear: I am not knocking the concept or principle of democracy – it is still the most equitable political system we have yet invented – we only have to look at regimes where monarchy or tyranny continue to rule to understand why this is true. But for democracy to work well – certainly insofar as elections are concerned – it requires certain conditions. First and foremost among these: rational actors and perfect information. 

What do we mean by that? Simply put, we mean that everyone must have access to the (objective) facts, and then everyone must act logically upon those facts. In theory, this should ensure that the best person for the job is elected.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that in the real world. 

No one has access to all the facts during a political campaign, and even if they did, such facts can be – and are – interpreted to suit particular narratives. Personal bias plays an enormous part in our decision-making, bias often based on anything but facts. And it is in this bog of anti-reason that politicians and the politics of populism flourish. Demagogues who can tap into anti-establishment resentment, loudmouths who can light the fuse beneath an incendiary cause, twisting narratives to suit the prevailing wind and their own agenda, can ride the tiger of rage all the way to the top.

We’ve seen it in Britain, America, India, across Europe. 

Trump did it brilliantly. He recognised, early on in his first campaign, that millions of Americans felt disenfranchised, voiceless, deprived of economic sustenance, dismissed by the so-called ‘liberal elite’, ignored. He spoke to them, not with facts or well considered political policies, but instead fanning their fears – fear of immigrants, fear of obsolescence, fear of socialism, fear of penury, fear of disorder – and rallied them to his banner. It is easy for those set against Trumpism to criticise these communities, but the truth is they voted for a man who allied himself with their sense of injury, who told them that he would do for them what others hadn’t. 

Is it any wonder that they came out in their droves for him?

And this, in a sense, is why Biden’s task is so very, very difficult, and why the jubilation that I see in (half of) America feels (sadly) just a tad premature.

Biden has pledged to be a ‘president who unifies’. A noble sentiment but also the most impotent and meaningless words in the lexicon of politics. Every incoming national leader – in major democracies, at least – feels compelled to utter this pointless statement knowing full well that even as the words leave their mouths they are falling limp and dead to the floor. 

Am I being unduly cynical? I don’t believe so. 

Consider the situation in America. After four years of Donald Trump, four years of divisive rhetoric, four years of feeding on people’s fears, four years of lying about anything and everything (lies that have been fact-checked by reputable sources), four years of rude, outlandish, and, in many instances, puerile behaviour, four years of infantile name-calling, the stoking of racist tensions, relentless conflict, chaotic man management, the eschewing of common decency, four years of a thinly-disguised hankering for authoritarianism, seventy million Americans still voted for him. 

Think about that. 

Seventy million Americans considered him the best person to lead and represent their nation. I’m not criticising these voters – they had every right to choose and, given that their choice was constrained to a Republican or a Democrat – or the right to abstain – they went with their man. The fact that so many did not abstain but voted for Trump, fervently voicing not only their support for him but also for his blatantly self-serving, ‘lying-ass’ (to use a Trumpist turn-of-phrase) narrative about ‘illegal elections’ demonstrates just how narrowly they now view the world through Trump-coloured goggles.

Since ancient times, democracy has been enshrined as the ‘rule of the people’. But the problem with democracy – and I say this somewhat tongue in cheek – is that people are idiots (some more so than others). We are all wedded to certain worldviews that colour how we vote. Those worldviews are a function of so many complex factors – mostly to do with our influences and lived experience – that they are impossible to disentangle from our decision-making. Thus, they impact upon our view of the type of person we believe is best suited to represent us. Having nailed our colours to the mast, it is almost as hard for us to change lanes politically as it is for us to disavow the religion we were born with. 

And that is why I think Biden’s rhetoric of ‘it’s time to unite’ will, unfortunately, fall on deaf ears. I doubt that a single one of those seventy million Americans who voted for Trump are in any sort of listening mood. Biden could offer them a bucket of gold each and they’d still tell him he won illegally, that he’s a ‘damned Commie’; they’ll nurse their resentment, supercharge their anger and the spectrum of fears that Trump played upon, and do everything within their power to undermine the foundations of ‘Bidenism’.

Political narratives at this level are never simple tales of good versus evil. Evil Trump hasn’t been vanquished by Prince Biden. Indeed, for millions, those two roles are reversible.

I’m going to make a prediction. Four years from now, this battle will be played out again. Trump will make a bid for a second term. Why wouldn’t he? Seventy million Americans backed him to the hilt – they’re not going anywhere. In spite of the mayor of Philadelphia’s exhortation for Trump to put on his ‘big boy pants’ and accept defeat, nothing of the sort has happened or will happen. Trump has – in the right way or wrong way, depending on your opinion – reenergised the Republican party – they wouldn’t dare field another candidate should he choose to throw his hat in the ring. Age is no bar – as Biden has shown. Most importantly of all, given everything we know about Trump’s shamelessly self-serving nature, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Wouldn’t he just love to be the Comeback Kid, the outsider who stormed the Whitehouse, not once, but twice?

After all, what else is he going to do with the rest of his life? 

Play golf?  

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

Great Indian Novels #5: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Many people describe Arundhati Roy as a literary enigma, an Indian version of Harper Lee. After winning the Booker Prize with her debut novel The God of Small Things back in 1997, she did not publish another book for twenty years until 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I prefer to think of her as a supremely gifted writer who crafted one of the finest works set in south India that I have had the pleasure of reading.

The God of Small Things is set in a lushly-described Kerala, the verdant state in southern India famous for its backwaters. The narrative flips between 1969 when key protagonists and fraternal twins Rahel (female) and Estappen (male) are seven years old, and 1993 when they are reunited after years apart. The story is difficult to describe because it has so many moving parts, centred around a large household. Rahel and Estappen (Estha) are the children of Ammu Ipe, a woman who marries an abusive alcoholic to escape her overbearing parents. Regretting her decision, she eventually returns to her parental home where we discover Chacko, her brother, returned from England after a divorce from an Englishwoman, and her conniving aunt, known as Baby Kochamma. Tragic events lie at the heart of the book, in part following on from the molestation of Estha in a theatre, and various love affairs both requited and unrequited. 

The book touches on multiple issues affecting Indian society, both in the immediate aftermath of the colonial era, and in more modern times: caste prejudice, religious strife, the dowry system, misogyny, and the workings of the class divide. The book also examines political realities such as the growth of Communism in India, particularly associated with the southern states, but which, in recent times, has become synonymous with a rebel Naxalite movement that the Indian government has classified as terrorism.   

Roy’s themes are many, but at their core lies one central idea: the notion of forbidden love, leading some to interpret the novel as a meditation on the idea that love is an “uncontrollable force”, and that it cannot be bound by social conventions. For instance, Ammu undertakes a love affair with a man from a lower social caste leading to tragic consequences. Another affair touches on incest. In India, particularly the India of 1969, these are taboo topics. Nevertheless, Roy is fearless in dragging matters into the light and this is one of the great strengths of this book. 

My own experience of reading this novel was the feeling of being submerged in a world recreated with a joyful attention to detail. It took Roy four years to write this novel, carefully tooling each sentence. There are multiple narratives, perspectives, and the time shift adds an additional layer of complexity. This is high quality literary prose and Roy displays a strong mastery of technique. 

The book, like all classics, has its critics. Not everyone was convinced that it deserved the Booker Prize. One judge (from the previous Booker year) called it ‘execrable’. Another critic hated the long brooding descriptions stating: “passages pile up in a car-crash of a creative writing tutorial”. In her home state of Kerala, Roy was forced to answer to charges of obscenity. 

For me the novel continues to shine as a genuinely elegiac work, resplendent with beautiful imagery and gorgeous prose. 

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

Great Indian Novels #4: White Tiger by Arvind Adiga

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Arvind Adiga was a respected journalist for many years before turning his hand to novel-writing and this is his masterwork, a book that won the 2008 Booker Prize and propelled him, in one bold leap, to the forefront of modern Indian fiction. 

The White Tiger is framed as a narrative letter written by the novel’s first-person narrator Balram Halwai to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Halwai decides to write this letter following a public statement by Mr Jiabao asking for “the truth about Bangalore”, India’s tech capital. Halwai has made his way up from being a lowly driver to running his own IT firm. That journey – an entrepreneurial enterprise that involves various morally questionable acts ranging from minor to major criminality – forms the heart of the novel. 

The book is a wicked satire, Adiga’s vehicle for critiquing the ‘new’ India. Through Halwai, he takes careful aim at the social prejudices, economic inequalities, and sacred cows that combine to keep those not born to prosperity on the subcontinent in a position of subservience. 

I lived for a decade in India during my twenties when the country was making its journey from being a largely pre-industrial economy to the economic juggernaut it is today. Like Adiga I became acutely conscious of the entrenched imbalances that I saw around me. For instance, in Mumbai today you can find the world’s most expensive private residence. (It belongs to India’s richest man.) Yet within walking distance is a small slum where families live five or six to a single room dwelling. This is inequality on a scale we cannot imagine in the west. The irony of it is that the nation’s leaders continue to proclaim that poverty is being eradicated and that all Indians are born equal. This is as patently untrue on the subcontinent as it is in any other nation, but perhaps the exigencies of the problem are more sharply defined here. 

Adiga mines this rich societal seam to create his satirical portrait of the country, stripping away the self-congratulations that fill the Indian airwaves and piercing the bubble of middle-class righteousness. 

Balram Halwai’s journey is particularly poignant in that it is not often one finds oneself rooting for a criminal. Perhaps it is in his background that we discover our empathy. His family had once been respected sweetmakers (“halwais”) but following Partition and the corruption of successive Indian governments, they have been pushed into a spiral of poverty from which there is little chance of recovery. As a boy he recalls being told that any child in India can grow up to be the nation’s prime minister. It is only later in life that the hollowness of this statement becomes evident to him, influencing the decisions that he makes. 

He also recalls the visit of an inspector to his school. The inspector asks him to name the creature that is rarest in the jungle. Halwai answers: “the white tiger”. 

The book has been criticised in some quarters for presenting caricatures of a complex nation, one bogged down by millennia of accumulated mores and conventions that cannot be overturned without vast social upheaval. Nevertheless, this remains one of my favourite novels about India. It pulls no punches, is wildly iconoclastic, and yet is as revealing as any literary treatise on life in modern India. For those who have wondered how the caste system actually works to create division and a lack of opportunity in the country, here it is, laid out for you in a coruscating polemic.

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

In the Heat of the Night – Race meets cinema: 50 years on and has anything changed?

Rewatching Norman Jewison’s 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night after almost two decades, I was struck by how topical and politically sharp it still seems, both an indictment of the fact that, fifty years on, the race relations debate in America appears to have barely moved forward, and also a testament to the brilliance of the film itself. 

The film is based on the novel of the same name by John Ball, set in small town Mississippi at the height of the civil rights struggle. A bigshot Chicago businessman building a factory in the town is found robbed and murdered in an alley. Moments later, a well-dressed black man is discovered at the local train station – so, naturally, he is arrested – with barely a question asked – and becomes the prime suspect. But all is not as it seems. When the gum-chewing Chief of Police, Gillespie – played by Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning turn – searches the man, he discovers that Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier at the very height of his powers) is a police officer. And not just any police officer – he just happens to be Philadelphia’s top homicide expert.

A reluctant Tibbs is forced to help the bumbling Gillespie, a man out of his depth, imperiously dismissing each suspect that Gillespie pins his hopes on. Tibbs relishes his technical superiority, taking delight in demolishing the police chief’s various theories by deconstructing his hasty conjectures and focusing on the evidence.

The murder mystery at the film’s heart propels the narrative forward. There is scarcely a wasted word, a padded scene. Indeed, often Jewison simply leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks, and the film is much the stronger for it.

What makes In the Heat of the Night such compelling viewing is the dynamic between Steiger and Tibbs and how it evolves over the course of the film. Steiger begins as a stereotypical ‘redneck’ police chief operating in the deep south – but we gradually discover that he is more than that, possessing a feral cunning and a subterranean morality that asserts itself as he watches Tibbs at work, pursuing the case even in the teeth of racial abuse and threats to his life.

When Tibbs at first refuses to assist, Steiger correctly gauges Tibbs’ desire to prove his superiority to Steiger and his merry band of white hicks. ‘You’ve got such a big head, you can’t pass the opportunity by.’

Jewison is equally careful not to paint Tibbs as some sort of saint-like avatar. He’s a man with his own faults, including more than a trace of hubris brought on by his own aggrieved sensibilities. At one point he becomes so determined to pin the crime on a local cotton plantation owner – Endicott – an old-school racist and business rival of the murder victim – that he pursues him blindly to the exclusion of more credible suspects. 

His sole interaction with Endicott leads to one of the film’s most iconic scenes. When Endicott – at first overly pleasant to Tibbs – discovers that Tibbs is, in fact, attempting to question him as a suspect in the murder, he slaps him. To the astonishment of all present – including a slack-jawed Steiger, a tray-bearing black house-servant, and movie audiences around the country – Tibbs slaps Endicott right back. Holding his cheek, Endicott – bearing the expression of a man whose entire world has just crumbled around his ears – says, in a hollow voice, ‘There was a time when I could have had you shot.’    

Thankfully, that time is long in the past. (Though, given this summer’s goings-on in America, some might argue that this isn’t quite the case.)

For me, the film works first and foremost as an engrossing crime story. The themes and messaging that surround the central mystery simply serve to add an emotional heft that resonates long after the final scene. The dialogue is particularly memorable. One quote in particular became a rallying cry and remains one of the most familiar lines from American cinema. When asked by Gillespie – astonished that a black man might occupy so lofty a position as homicide expert – what people call him back home, Tibbs replies: ‘They call me Mister Tibbs.’

The many guises of the Private Eye

Private eye. For me, these two simple words instantly conjure up the image of Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, a fedora-wearing, wisecracking sleuth with a feral instinct for survival and a moral compass that, despite occasionally wobbling on its axis, ultimately points the way towards truth and justice. 

But private eyes come in many guises. 

From ‘gumshoes’ such as Marlowe, Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Slade, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and others in the hardboiled American noir tradition – where the law enforcement landscape in which our PI operates is invariably as corrupt as the criminals – to the ‘highbrow’ private detective, the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, and a slew of cerebral, superior-minded, quirk-invested clones of these hallowed archetypes. We further have a host of amateur sleuths, ranging from Christie’s Miss Marple to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana-based Precious Ramotswe, ‘traditionally-built’ proprietor of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, lover of bush-tea and African aphorisms. 

Last, but not least, we have that select band of PIs who once wore a uniform. 

I am talking, of course, about the cop-turned-private detective.

The protagonist of my first series, Inspector Chopra, is such a PI. For thirty years, he wore the khaki of the Mumbai Police Service, a man of great integrity in an environment marked by corruption, incompetence, and abuse of power. For thirty years, he served the ideal of justice in a country where, if you have money or influence, you can often evade the consequences of your actions. And then, one day, in his late forties, he is forced into early retirement by a bout of angina, cut adrift from the activity that gives his life meaning and purpose. 

In the first book in the series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, Chopra finds himself pursuing the death of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks in an India redefining itself as globalisation transforms the social, cultural and economic landscape. Realising that his seniors don’t wish to investigate the boy’s death, Chopra sets off to uncover the truth, ably demonstrating the quintessential characteristics of the PI – a relentless quest for justice, the ability to persevere against the odds, and a desire to see things through. 

Today the business of private investigation has become, like so much of life, highly commercialised. 

Modern private detective agencies have polished websites and access to the latest tech wizardry including data-mining techniques that can reveal, in a few short hours, much of the information it might have taken the likes of Holmes and Marlowe days of legwork to uncover. Some modern PIs, such as Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, already employ these godlike powers. 

In the future, artificial intelligence will make this process even faster, not only uncovering information at the speed of light, but intuitively arriving at deductions based on that information. Such AI is already being employed by law-enforcement agencies – for instance, to connect members of organised criminal gangs via network analysis – it is only a short leap before the first AI PI (now there’s an alliterative mouthful!) makes its debut in crime fiction. For me, however, there is something charming in the idea of a PI who still needs to get out there and ‘work the streets’. 

In my fifth book, Bad Day at the Vulture Club, Chopra is challenged to investigate the unsolved death of a wealthy Parsee. The Parsees of India are famed for their contribution to the country but also because they do not bury or cremate their dead; they leave them out to be eaten by vultures in Mumbai’s notorious Towers of Silence. Chopra takes the case – not because he needs the money, but because for him, justice must be equal for all, rich or poor. 

In this we find the very essence of the PI – and perhaps the secret behind their enduring appeal. In a landscape of often conflicted principles, PIs are the ultimate egalitarians.

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here