Great Indian Novels #3: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

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

There are as many stories about Shantaram’s author Gregory David Roberts as there are about the novel itself. What is certain is that Roberts has produced one of the most well-known books about life in contemporary India yet published. The author claims that the book was based on real events taken from his own colourful life; others dispute the claim. It is certainly a matter of record that, in 1978, Roberts was given a 19-year sentence in his native Australia after being convicted of a series of armed robberies. In July 1980, he escaped from Victoria’s Pentridge Prison and ended up in India where he remained one of Australia’s most wanted men for the next decade. 

The book, first published in 2003, mirrors this narrative, as it follows a man named Lindsay, a convicted bank robber and heroin addict who escapes prison and flees to Mumbai, India. The novel then describes his subsequent adventures in the country.

I read this book after having lived, like Roberts/Lindsay in the city of Mumbai for a similar period of time – a decade. I was immediately struck by the way that Roberts manages to capture the incredible vivacity of life in Mumbai, and the descriptions of the protagonist adapting to the culture shock he experiences. I went through something similar, having ventured to Mumbai aged twenty-three, with no prior experience of the country. 

The book employs a diverse cast of characters – Roberts introduces us to a cross-section of Mumbai’s population, particularly at the lower end of the social scale. A particularly poignant section of the novel sees our protagonist living in one of the city’s infamous slums. 

At its heart this novel is about the journey that one man makes, spiritually and emotionally. Roberts clearly believes in redemption and this book is his thinly-disguised attempt at informing us that this is something he has sought to achieve.

The novel is a lengthy read (almost 1000 pages) and Roberts has a tendency to become overly rapturous. In this respect, the book might have benefited from a stronger edit. 

The third act of the novel has also been criticised. 

Lindsay’s time in Mumbai culminates with him spending a brutal stint in the city’s Arthur Road Jail, following which he travels to Afghanistan in order to smuggle weapons for mujahedeen freedom fighters. The credibility of this last flourish has been called into question. 

In his defence, Roberts has stated that: “With respect, Shantaram is not an autobiography, it’s a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.”

In spite of the fact-versus-fiction controversy, Shantaram remains one of those landmark novels that has maintained its popularity over time, a touchstone for many travellers to the subcontinent. It is, for the most part, an entertaining and informative read, capturing the diversity, absurdity and human melodrama of life in one of the world’s most populous cities.  

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 the same period in India, the 1950s. 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

Cultural appropriation (part 3): when authors get it right

The High Arctic. Temperatures of below forty. Snow blizzards and crashing icebergs. Polar bears. And a series of islets known as the Queen Elizabeth Islands. 

Some years ago, I decided to write a historical crime novel set in this austere and remote location, a story at the heart of which lay a small community of island-dwellers known as Inuit. Once upon a time they had been called Eskimo – or Esquimaux, from the French, meaning ‘those who use snowshoes’ – a term now considered offensive. 

By the time the book was ready for submission, the publishing world had been overtaken by a storm of soul-searching, manifested in a (laudable) desire to implement greater diversity and a less clear-cut mission to ensure that authors had the ‘requisite authority’ to write about a particular subject. In other words, cultural appropriation was now a buzzword, something that might set off silent tripwires, torpedoing book projects and annihilating careers. A new, slippery dimension had been added to the evaluation process applied to a work before deciding whether to publish. 

I decided, in the end, not to submit the novel. I am not Inuit, and have never lived on the Queen Elizabeth Islands. The majority of my (painstaking) research was done the old-fashioned way – toiling through textbooks, browsing Internet documents and travelogues, and speaking to those who’d experienced life in the High Arctic.

In this, the third of three pieces on the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, I want to focus on cultural appropriation in literature that, in my opinion, has been done well – or, at the least, has achieved widespread acceptance. My previous two articles were Cultural Appropriation: why people need to get a grip and Cultural Appropriation: when authors crash and burn. In these, I made the argument that authors should not be bounded by arbitrary cultural fences – as long as they are willing to approach their task with humility.

Today authors are routinely vilified for writing characters hailing from backgrounds other than their own, with some accusing them of taking the spotlight away from authentic voices. In some cases, this is justified, particularly where authors have been lazy in their research, indulging in stereotypes and otherwise being disrespectful to the truth of the community they are portraying. In other cases, I find it troubling that authorial intent is being either assessed as automatically malevolent (without any evidence for such a judgment) or drowned out by the clamour of those who simply don’t want anyone to write outside of their cultural sandbox. 

To be clear, this isn’t a phenomenon that affects just white writers. As I have demonstrated above, minority authors can also feel trapped by this insidious form of vetting-by-public-approval. 

For me the troubling nature of this problem isn’t just that it stops authors from practising their creed – to imagine, to invent, to create fictional plots using whatever raw material happens to inspire them; the problem is also in the arbitrary nature of the yardsticks being applied.

After all, who decides whether a particular writer is authentic enough to write about a particular topic?

I shall illustrate this by means of some famous cases where I think the nature of the cultural appropriation debate becomes fuzzy. 

One of my favourite authors is Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved to the UK aged five. He did not return to Japan for thirty years. Yet his first two novels were set in Japan. However, his most famous work, Remains of the Day, is possibly the most quintessential English novel I have ever read. Ishiguro’s work has been critically acclaimed and he is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The fact that he has written both English and Japanese-set works – without raising anyone’s hackles – speaks volumes. It indicates that as long as someone has lived in a particular country or can claim a particular heritage, it should entitle them to write about that culture. Right?

But just how long do you have to live somewhere to give you that entitlement? How much of your heritage must be of that culture and how recent must it be? After all, according to modern genetic research, if we go back far enough we’re all related to each other. I could, technically-speaking, claim to be a distant relative of the Inuit I wrote about, though I doubt such a facetious argument would go down well with the howling backbenchers. 

Another of my favourite authors, David Mitchell’s fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zuet, was set in eighteenth-century Japan. Mitchell is English, but lived in Japan for eight years while working as a teacher. The book was nominated for numerous awards; again, few questions were raised around his right to pen such a work. While Mitchell had no Japanese ancestors that he could trot out to prove his bone fides, his affinity for Japan, his dedication to researching the novel (he spent four years working out the tiniest details) became legend. 

Eight years. But what if he’d spent only a year in Japan? Or three months? Would he still be ‘allowed’ to write that novel? 

Do you see how problematical this idea can become? The notion that there are invisible gatekeepers out there judging who can and cannot tell certain stories, gatekeepers with no commonly agreed methodology as to how they are arriving at their verdict?

When taken to extremes ‘cultural vetting’ is a form of literary censorship, enabled by an age of hypersensitivity and fear. Ultimately, it means writers – and the publishing industry – will evolve to take less risks.

None of this, of course, is intended to suggest that writers have carte blanche to insult or misrepresent another culture in fiction, or to exploit someone else’s lived history just to ‘make a quick buck’. Of course not. Any writer indulging in such shallow, self-serving behaviour deserves to be called out. But the argument against cultural appropriation, if taken to its logical extreme, results in absurdism. No writer could write anything outside of their lived experience – i.e. as was pointed out in another article on this topic, we’d be awash in boring memoirs and not a word of fiction. 

Perhaps this is the right moment to mention a book that for me, at any rate, is an exemplar of cultural appropriation ‘done right’.

In 1980, an Australian writer named Thomas Keneally walked into the Beverly Hills shop of Poldek Pfefferberg, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and purveyor of briefcases. Learning that Keneally was a writer, Pfefferberg insisted on showing him his extensive files on a man named Oskar Schindler, a Nazi Party member who he claimed had helped save the lives of a thousand Jews – including Pfefferberg – during the war. 

This then was the seed that led to Keneally’s Booker-winning novel Schindler’s Ark, later turned into the Oscar-winning Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Keneally was not Jewish nor had he any direct experience of the Holocaust to call upon. He wrote a book completely outside of his cultural identity. What he did do was put in the work: he pored over documents, conducted interviews, and even went to Poland, with Pfefferberg as his guide, to visit Kraków and the sites associated with the Schindler story. He did his homework. 

I have read the book. It is magnificent, told with brutal honesty, but using the skills of a seasoned writer to bring to life the terrible circumstances described in the novel. Keneally’s empathy is there for all to see.

Ultimately, the debate over cultural appropriation will rage on for years to come. Not just the matter of who can tell other people’s stories, but how it should be done. 

Increasingly, writers are being accused of literary appropriation whenever they represent a minority group, no matter how they do so. This has the knock-on effect of scaring away agents, editors, and publishing executives from even considering such work. The circle narrows until we choke off a good chunk of literary endeavour.

Again, it should be said that there is nothing wrong with attempting to address many of the imbalances prevalent within the industry, an industry dominated by white writers. I completely understand that, without checks and balances, publishing will regress to the easiest option, which means paying mainstream white writers to pen stories about people of colour – or people from other minority groups – simply because they will have an easier time of selling the well-known, mainstream writer – often to audiences that themselves are predominantly white. 

What I would really like to see is the industry being challenged to champion writers from different backgrounds – but to then not restrict them by saying, we will back you, but only so long as you write in your own little cultural playpen.

A level playing field means everyone has the ‘right to write’, as long as they follow the golden rules. Do your research. Don’t indulge in stereotypes. Write with empathy and humility. Present verifiable facts, particularly when tackling matters of identity and cultural history. If possible, use a sensitivity proof reader, someone familiar with that culture.

Put simply, writers should write in a way that reflects cultural appreciation, not cultural misappropriation.

Novelist Stella Duffy has previously stated that it is “vital” that people from different backgrounds write beyond their own experiences to help shatter stereotypes and develop empathy.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. 

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 is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Great Indian Novels #2: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

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

I remember the first time I picked up a copy of Midnight’s Children. It was in a small bookshop in Mumbai in 1998, air-conditioning thundering away behind me, monsoon rain beating furiously at the windowpanes. 

I had been in India less than a year, working as a management consultant. The bookshop was a thrilling find – back then it was one of only a handful in the city that sold international fiction. 

I had heard of the book, but never read it. The cover blurb intrigued me, promising to teach me a little more about the country that I found myself in. I knew that it had won the Booker Prize (in 1981) – this was clearly a work that had garnered the highest critical praise. I handed over two hundred rupees (£2) and headed home in an autorickshaw, bouncing along potholed roads, their less-than-pukka surfaces denuded by the rain, an annual occurrence, I would come to learn. 

That night I began the novel. It is hard to express the feeling of delight that moved through me as I turned the pages of Rushdie’s epic work. Wonderful prose, lyricism, humour, satire, and an injection of history, all coming together to make a perfect whole. 

The book is told in the style of magical realism, the story of Saleem Sinai (“variously called Snotnose, Sniffer, Baldy, and Piece of the Moon”), and 1001 other children born at the precise moment of India’s independence, all endowed with a host of fantastical powers. 

The novel begins with one of the finest openings in literature. “I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. The time matters, too… On the stroke of midnight… at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence I tumbled forth into the world… thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.”

The story of Saleem is the story of the birth of modern India, from the critical moments of the Independence movement, through the bloody mess of Partition, and its aftermath. Rushdie gleefully dissects the first three decades of Indian nationhood. (Rushdie himself has stated that “Midnight’s Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways which its author cannot wholly know.”)

It begins with Saleem’s grandfather, Aziz, in the paradise that was once Kashmir. Dr Aziz, newly returned from Europe, is beset by doubt, of his faith, of the country he now finds himself in, caught in the earliest throes of anti-colonialism. He marries and moves southwards towards Bombay. The novel then tracks the progress of the Independence movement, the cataclysmic upheaval of Partition, Saleem’s life in a changing Bombay, and his subsequent trials as India suffers the birth pangs of becoming the world’s largest democracy and most populated republic.

We follow Saleem as he is put through the wringer of history, ending up in both Pakistan and (what would become) Bangladesh, and ultimately finding himself a victim of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’, a two-year constitutional meltdown instigated by the PM that allowed her to ‘rule by decree’. Rushdie pulls no punches in taking down Gandhi and her decision-making during this period, when elections were suspended and civil liberties curbed. (Gandhi took Rushdie to court in 1984 claiming that the book had defamed her. The case was settled out of court.) 

Midnight’s Children is a long book, almost 600 pages, full of exuberant writing, richly textured historical forays, a cast of thousands, relentless allegory, and a seemingly endless vein of creativity and wit. The New York Review of Books called it “one of the most important books to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation”.In 1993 and again in 2008, the book was awarded the ‘Booker of Bookers’ – that is, the best of the Booker winners.

It is my favourite novel about India. Can I say more?

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 the same period in India, the 1950s. 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 #1: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

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

Vikram Seth’s magnum opus occupies a particularly lofty pedestal in the annals of fiction. Weighing in at some 1300 pages and over half a million words it is one of the longest novels ever published in the English language. The story is set, largely, in Calcutta, in 1951, a period where India was finding its feet following the cataclysmic upheaval of Independence. Partition was only a few years in the past, Gandhi’s assassination had left its mark. There was political turmoil as the new republic tried to work out what sort of democracy it was going to be. Nehru was the man at the helm and his ideals veered towards the left, particularly in his plans to dismantle the old feudal system and remove power from the ruling classes. 

These are the larger themes that serve as a canvas for Seth’s wonderful tale of four intertwined families. First and foremost among these are the Mehras, led by Mrs Rupa Mehra, widow and mother to two daughters, one of whom, Lata, is the girl for whom the ‘suitable boy’ is being sought. As the story unfolds we encounter three potential husbands for Lata, of varying degrees of suitability (in Mrs Mehra’s eyes). The enormous cast that flit around this quest include the Kapoors, the Khans, and the Chatterjis. Mahesh Kapoor is the state minister for Revenue, the Nawab Sahib of Baitur (the head of the Khan family), is a member of the landholding class set to lose out under Nehru’s reforms. Their political encounters provide Seth with grist for his mill as he seeks to detail India’s social turmoil.  

The storytelling is captivating, though some will argue that you need a masochistic love of prose to appreciate the manner in which it is laid out. It is not a tale that moves swiftly, and to some the novel may be dry, ponderous, self-important and overwritten. For me this misses the point of a book like this. This was never intended to be a pacey thriller. This is a genuine literary endeavour. Seth takes his time, lingering over characters, scenes and settings. It is this very sense of exactitude that sets the book apart. No other novel that I have read takes such delight in simply using language as an end in itself; Seth has a wonderfully fluid grasp of prose and takes joy in displaying his wit, embellishing the novel with couplets and impish rhymes, passages of dazzling description and charming dialogue.  

I first read this novel in my twenties, and then reread it last year. I can honestly say that that twenty-year hiatus – and the life experience that it contained – allowed me to discover a greater admiration for the author who had laboured for so long over what, in essence, is an extended family saga.

And it was truly a labour. A Guardian review of the novel describes the painstaking process by which Seth crafted his masterwork, spending six years closeted in a room in India while his family tiptoed around him. The article cites a contemporary of Seth’s, William Bissell: “He couldn’t think about anything else, he couldn’t do anything else. Food, sleep, nothing else mattered. We went to stay with the family in Simla, where his mother was a judge, and he was closeted all day in his room. He would only emerge in the evening in his dressing gown clutching a batch of new pages.”

The above-mentioned Guardian article also states that Seth spent a year researching the 1950s, burying himself in “piles of old newspapers, records of legislative debates, gazetteers and memoirs” and “spent weeks in a village in rural Uttar Pradesh and with leather workers in Agra”. 

This obsessive quest for detail is visible on every page. It is one of the things I most enjoyed about the book; Seth so vividly evokes the era that to say one is transported to this time and place seems an understatement. This is the sort of book that once you immerse yourself in hours fly by before you look up again. And yes, it is very, very long. The book’s editor recalls the difficulty of getting other authors to read and offer blurbs. It is said that the author Norman Lewis replied with: ‘It’s longer than the Bible, I’ll try to read it before I die.'”

I would strongly suggest that this is one of those books that genuine lovers of literary fiction must read before they die. You won’t regret 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 the same period in India, the 1950s. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

How 30 years of DNA profiling has changed crime fiction

22 November 1983: 15-year-old Lynda Mann is found raped and strangled on a deserted footpath in the Leicestershire village of Narborough. Police find semen and a blood sample at the scene, but cannot identify a suspect. On 31 July 1986, a second 15-year-old girl, Dawn Ashworth, was found in a wooded area in a neighbouring village. She had been beaten, savagely raped and strangled. Richard Buckland, a local 17-year-old youth with learning difficulties admitted to the second murder under questioning, but denied killing Mann.

At the time Alex Jeffreys, a genetics professor at the University of Leicester, had discovered that patterns in some regions of a person’s DNA could be used to distinguish one individual from another. Jeffreys had used his DNA pattern recognition technique in paternity and immigration cases, but now the police asked for his help. When he analyzed samples from the murders, he found matching DNA from both crime scenes—but the recovered DNA didn’t match Buckland’s genetic code. Buckland was thus the first person to have his innocence proven by DNA analysis.

In an attempt to find the real culprit, the police obtained blood and saliva samples from more than 4,000 men in the Leicestershire area and had Jeffreys analyze the DNA. In due course, Colin Pitchfork was convicted via a DNA match and sentenced to life in prison.

That moment marked a watershed in both criminal investigation and in the crime fiction that follows in its wake. 

Let’s set the scene. By the 1980s crime fiction had long evolved from its ‘golden age’ where intuition, intellect and good old-fashioned doggedness were the primary means by which detectives tracked down evildoers and proved their nefarious crimes. Blood evidence, fingerprints, and various other scientific methods of crime scene analysis had moved the spotlight from the Sherlockian sleuth to the detective working in tandem with the forensic technicians. However maverick that detective might be, he (or she) was still required to kneel before the altar of crime scene analysis. 

But the fact remained that much of that evidence was open to either error or misinterpretation. This left plenty of wriggle room for crime fiction writers to create flawed case investigations (allowing for plot twists) and slippery villains able to laugh in the face of the scientific skullduggery that aimed to bring them low.

What DNA evidence did was to move the bar again. 

DNA profiling is as close to a magic bullet as law enforcement has yet come. Whilst every other type of evidence might be argued against, DNA matches are so statistically compelling that the possibility for error is all but dismissed. 

The effect on the criminal justice system has been seismic, revolutionising not only how investigations are conducted, but also starkly highlighting historical errors and police misconduct. The Innocence Project in the USA tells us that, since 1989, 367 DNA exonerations have taken place in America alone. During the same period thousands of prime suspects in other investigations were identified and pursued until DNA testing proved they were wrongly accused.

These are sobering statistics. For crime fiction writers – and readers – they provide compelling evidence of the potency of DNA profiling.In a real sense DNA has made crime fiction more science-based, behoving crime writers to understand the science behind modern evidence analysis. (Of course, sometimes fiction goes over the top leading to the godlike powers of law enforcement officials in TV programmes such as CSI.) Technological improvements in DNA analysis, resulting in the ability to analyse ever smaller quantities of DNA, have led to an ever-better ability to identify or convict criminals. 

Which, in turn, makes the task of a crime fiction writer more difficult. 

After all, how do we create suspense if there is a magic bullet out there ready to solve the crime within the first dozen pages of our novel? 

In a June 2019 Telegraph article Madeline Grant lamented that “since the advent of DNA testing, iPhones and CCTV” the fun has been taken out of detective fiction. She goes on to say that “Today, almost every crime drama seems to hinge on DNA evidence, rendering the deductive methods favoured by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple obsolete.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Crime fiction is now the world’s bestselling genre. One reason for this is that crime writers have adapted to the new panacea. In some cases we fudge, ie. we invent clever criminals who watch cop shows and realise they must avoid leaving DNA at crime scenes. They shave off their body hair, wear gloves and hairnets, and bleach away incriminating DNA from corpses and crime scenes. (In reality criminals are rarely that clever!) 

More importantly, crime writers continue to stick to the formula that has underpinned the genre’s success. A great crime novel doesn’t need to fiddle about with pesky DNA. It needs only a compelling mystery, a likeable detective, and an immersive setting. 

I work at the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science where I have access to the latest forensic science research. Yet I do not feel the urge to shoehorn that research into my books. The bulk of my deductive method is done the old-fashioned way. Solving clues, interviewing witnesses, shoe-leather. 

DNA has changed crime fiction, of that there is no doubt. But beneath the science the fundamentals of a great story remain inviolable. Long may that remain the case.

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 is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Cultural Appropriation (part 2): when authors crash and burn

As a follow-up to my recent piece Cultural Appropriation: why people need to get a grip, I thought I would focus specifically on cultural appropriation in literature, a subject close to my heart. In my first article, I argued that authors should have the license to write as they wish, unrestricted by artificial boundaries imposed upon them by their cultural heritage, as long as they were willing to do the necessary homework and treat their subject with due respect. 

This argument now needs to be examined more closely. Because, of course, there are clearly instances where authors have incited great angst by writing about cultures outside of their own.

In 1967, The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron, was published to great fanfare. The book was based on the real Nat Turner, a black preacher and slave from the American South, and focused on the 1831 slave revolt that he inspired in Virginia. The book met with unprecedented acclaim, ultimately winning the Pulitzer Prize. Styron basked in the glow of success. 

There was only one problem. 

He was a white male being lauded for writing a first-person narrative of the black slave experience. 

The tide soon turned against Styron with various black scholars and activists condemning the work, much to the author’s own bemusement – Styron himself felt that his portrayal was well-researched and had examined, with empathy, the trauma of slavehood in the America of that period. On the other side, there was outrage that a privileged white man could dare to inhabit so intimately the life of a black man, and be amply rewarded for so doing. (Ultimately, the controversy didn’t hurt Styron. Ten years later, he wrote Sophie’s Choice. Again, hugely successful, and controversial – Styron was accused of revisionism, of recasting the Jewish experience of the Holocaust at Auschwitz. As he was not Jewish himself, this again appeared to be an instance of cultural appropriation that hadn’t quite gone to plan.)

The same arguments were raised more recently when Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was published in 2009. Like Styron’s novel, the book went on to huge commercial success, but was later hit by a deluge of criticism. Stockett, a white middle-class American, had written a story about African American maids working in white households in Mississippi in the 1960s, filtering her portrayal through a ‘white saviour’ trope. The book was accused by many in the African American community of the shallowest portrayal of black people’s experiences in that setting and era. Stockett was even sued by Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper who once worked for Stockett’s brother, and who claimed that the author had stolen her likeness and life story. (A Mississippi judge dismissed the case, citing the statute of limitations.) 

Hollywood soon turned the book into a (very successful) movie – written and directed by a white man. One of its stars, black actor, Viola Davis, later said in a 2018 Vanity Fair interview that she regretted doing the film. “I just felt that at the end of the day it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”

            Other critics similarly suggested that Stockett had painted lazy, superficial stereotypes, not just failing to deliver the truth of the lives of her black protagonists, but actively harming any ‘history lesson’ other communities – especially white Americans – might take from the piece.The book – and film – offered only occasional glimpses of the cruelty inflicted on African Americans during that period. (I have read The Help. Even though I am not African American, I found it guilty of some of the above, though I’m happy for others to disagree.)

A third case.

In 2019, the novel American Dirt attracted huge publicity – for all the wrong reasons. The fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family, the book has been panned on the basis of clichéd writing, and for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” appropriating the stories of Mexican immigrants to America. Until the book’s release, the author, Jeanine Cummins, had identified as white (something she publically stated), only revealing in the lead-up to publication– and once the negative scrutiny began to take off – that she has a Puerto Rican grandmother. Cummins’ subsequent book tour was cancelled due to the level of vitriol she received and concerns for her safety.

These three novels represent a spectrum of poor to reasonably well-written portraits of cultures beyond those of their authors. Each has met with overwhelming financial success, and an avalanche of criticism, particularly from the communities they are purporting to empathise with. For some, the mere fact that they were written by people outside of those communities was bad enough. 

For others, this wasn’t an issue. 

Instead, the problem was that they were written either very badly, tritely, or without carrying out the due diligence expected of an author embarking on such a hazardous mission. In a certain sense, these authors were accused of not showing enough respect for the material, or relying on ‘white privilege’, and then being rewarded for doing so, the implication being that authentic voices from these communities are rarely given the same opportunity, platform, or rewards when they pen such stories. Effectively, the publishing industry stands accused of aiding and abetting the problem.

Many authors – including many from minority communities, myself included – have publically stated that we have no problem with authors writing beyond their own culture. To prevent authors from so doing would destroy the very essence of what it means to be a writer of fiction. If I want the freedom to write about different types of people then I must be willing to give that same freedom to other writers. After all, if we think of it rationally, every novel includes some elements of experiences beyond the author’s own cultural upbringing; if we took the ‘write only what you know’ brigade at their word, then pretty much all fiction would come to a grinding halt. (I’m a crime author. I haven’t murdered anyone lately, but have been culturally appropriating the experiences of the minority group known as ‘murderers’ for years.)

For me, the problem arises only when authors are lazy, disrespectful, insensitive, or merely using someone else’s lived experience to create a titillating story that distorts the cultural experience of the community they have chosen to portray.

The novelist Hari Kunzru has stated: “Should the artist go forth boldly, without fear? Of course, but he or she should also tread with humility.”

I agree. Humility – for the subject matter – is the key criteria here.

And what of readers, rarely considered in all this hoopla? 

The publishing industry has a habit of treating readers as a single mass that must be spoon fed. Hence, the industry’s fear of change, the habit of continuing to publish the exact same kind of book by the exact same kind of author, the pathological fear of publishing writers with ‘funny names’, or presenting readers with ‘challenging’ settings and protagonists – unless written by ‘mainstream’ authors. 

This is not a criticism of ‘mainstream’ authors. There are clearly some who make sterling efforts to include diverse characters and do a good job of it. One argument is that when popular authors do this, they aid in the process of normalising readers to seeing new cultures in fiction, thus making it easier for writers from those cultures to portray their own experiences. Again, this view is criticised by some who feel it is ‘taking voice away’ from such writers in the first place. 

Personally, I am willing to give merit to both sides of this debate. Not every white author who writes a character with subcontinental heritage is trying to steal my spot on the bus, just as when I write a white character I’m not trying to take anything away from a white author. 

In my own experience, readers can be the real catalyst for change. They are far more astute than the industry gives them credit for. If given more choice, I am certain most readers would happily embrace a good story, no matter how diverse the characters or the author’s cultural background. In other words, they can make up their own damned minds!

In the third and final piece in this series, Cultural Appropriation: when authors get it right, I examine instances where I think cultural appropriation in literature has been done right.

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 is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

When History Brings Time to a Standstill…

As a writer, I spend an inordinate (some might say unhealthy) amount of time engaged in ‘research’: skimming through books, the Internet, old documents, social media archives, and ‘living’ memories. Every now and again, whilst engaged in this process, a particular fact or image strikes me with unexpected force, causing me to step back and take a moment. 

I stumbled across the below photograph while researching the India of the late 40s and early 50s for Midnight at Malabar House, the first in my new historical crime series. I found myself stopping, and gazing at this young woman, struck by a profound sense of mystery, in the wake of which followed a set of questions. 

Who is she? What is she thinking? What is it about her that has made me pause?

The answer to the last of these questions is, for me, at least, the sense of incongruity broadcast by the photograph. Here is an Indian woman, dressed in traditional north-Indian garb, but holding a very European instrument: a tennis racquet. Like cricket, tennis is not a game native to the subcontinent; it was another colonial sporting pursuit brought over by the British to make them feel a little more at home in a very alien environment. (Unlike cricket, tennis remains a largely marginal sport on the subcontinent, despite the occasional Indian star making a splash in professional tennis circles.) 

At the time, only the middle to upper-middle classes would have had the means to indulge in the game. The racquet, in essence, tells me something about the socioeconomic circles within which this woman moved, and that, in turn allows me to hazard a guess at her upbringing, her schooling, her lifestyle. In other words, the assumptions I make (which I admit, might be wrong) allow me to bring this woman to life, if only as a semi-fictional character drawn on the canvas of my imagination. 

There is something else about her that drew my eye – an almost palpable sense of insolence. 

The India of the late 40s was a country coming to terms with the end of the Raj and the advent of Indian Independence in 1947. On the one hand, India had every right to a sense of accomplishment, having ousted the British, and thrown off the colonial yoke. On the other hand, this was an incredibly fractious time: social, economic, religious, and political turmoil wracked the country. The Partition riots had seen two million dead and a lingering animosity between Muslims on the one side, and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Prime Minister Nehru, following Gandhi’s assassination, had taken the reins and was wrestling with the country’s economic future.

Many Indians were struggling to adapt to the new reality, and to reimagine their own identity now that the British were no longer around to trammel their sense of self-expression. 

That, I suppose, it what I see most in this woman. 

An Indian unafraid of the future. 

In a very real sense, the persona that I projected onto her became the catalyst for me to think about the role of women in the India of this period, a paternalistic and often misogynistic society. Unearthing the exploits of women who went against the prevailing order, those female pioneers who refused to tow the line, led me to examine the fortunes of one Shanti Parwani, India’s first female Inspector of police. 

And that, in turn, led me to conjure up Persis Wadia, the protagonist of my Malabar House series. 

Trawling through history is a highly rewarding endeavour, yet the sheer wealth of material can sometimes make it feel like battling through whitewater rapids, constantly assailed by the churn of information. But, every once in a while, a single fact or image will arrest time, history will stare you in the face, and challenge you to fill in the blanks. 

From such moments is inspiration born.

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 is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Cultural appropriation: why people need to get a grip

Earlier this week, the Internet went into meltdown because pop icon Adele had her hair braided into Bantu knots, a traditional African hairstyle. Accusing her of ‘cultural appropriation’, hordes of the rabid Outraged took to Twitter to vent their spleen, while others leapt to her defence.

Who was right? What the hell is ‘cultural appropriation’ anyway? And why should we care?

Cultural appropriation has become such a politically charged term, and so subjective in its interpretation, that even debating the validity of its meaning risks drawing down the ire of the mob. Nevertheless, I find myself unable to stand on the sidelines – I want to address this issue – and I fully accept that this is my own take on the matter. I have a personal stake in the outcome. In the publishing world, a debate currently rages that speaks to the very heart of what it means to be an author, a debate that seeks to set boundaries on our imaginations within the context of cultural identity.

When we talk about cultural appropriation, what we really mean is cultural misappropriation: the adoption of elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity in a way that is deemed to cause offence. It particularly becomes an issue when the culture engaging in the alleged misappropriation has historically disadvantaged the culture from which it is appropriating. The trouble is that the lines are not only blurred but continually being redrawn as to what might be perceived as offensive.

Some examples.

The Washington Redskins football team has, after years of petitioning, finally agreed to change its name and logo – that of a Native American in feathered headdress. The logo was deemed racist by many in the Native American population, understandably so, given their fraught history with white colonisers.

Blackface is another relatively clear-cut example of cultural misappropriation.

In general, dressing up as ethnic stereotypes, especially in an attempt to ridicule or parody, is a no-no.

Recently, several actors have been criticised for taking on roles outside of their culture. I’m certain Scarlett Johansson intended no offence when portraying an iconic Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, yet offence was taken. In this instance, historical context is important, given that her casting followed a long line of such perceived slights by Hollywood. In the 1930s, white Swedish-American actor Warner Oland played a Chinese detective named Charlie Chan in no less than sixteen films. In the fifties, John Wayne was given a truly awful makeover to play Genghis Khan. To our modern eyes these images are clearly insensitive, but the truth is that they were disquieting even then, symptomatic of both a cultural and power inequality in Hollywood – and the world at large.

Having said all this, I remain firmly behind the idea that authors – and creative artists, in general – should be allowed to express themselves beyond the bounds of the culture into which they were born. To not have that right would mean that could never pen a novel populated by white protagonists. I could never set a story in exotic climes, or at least those cultural settings deemed outside of my subcontinental heritage.

But who is drawing the lines here? Who is in charge of what is and isn’t permissible – culturally speaking – for a particular individual or situation? Can sporting a particular hairstyle really cause such terrible offence? Has the worldwide adoption of hip-hop music been detrimental or helpful to the black inner city communities within which it originated? When non-black artists perform such music are they insulting or celebrating black culture?

Everything is about context.

There is, some argue, a fine line between cultural misappropriation and cultural appreciation. After all, in an increasingly interconnected, globalised world, cultures are continually mixing – it’s inevitable that we will see a sharing of cultural ideas, traditions, fashions, symbols, and even language. For me (and many others), this is a good thing, a way for cultures to understand and empathise with each other, and to normalise what at first might seem different or strange. Did you think you were insulting generations of subcontinental cooks the last time you made a curry at home? Of course not!

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Debate on the issue has itself become all but impossible, so eager are some to draw battlelines. Cancel culture has stilled the protests of many who might bring a sense of perspective.

I confess, I am fed up with the knee-jerk, hysterical, faux-outrage that continually swamps the Internet. Whilst there are clearly cases of cultural misappropriation that should be called out, other instances are beyond trivial – or deliberately misinterpreted.

Personally, I think that the matter comes down to common sense. We will not all agree on every situation, but by taking a deep breath before reacting, we might better serve the cause of global fraternity.

As far as authors are concerned, I will continue to defend our right to explore any realm of the imagination that we should so choose. If we do our research, if we set out to highlight rather than to denigrate, to depict a particular culture with truth and empathy – warts and all – then we will have fulfilled the tenets of our creed, and should not feel remotely guilty in so doing.

In 2019 Booker-prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo dismissed the concept of cultural appropriation, suggesting that it is ridiculous to demand of writers that they not “write beyond your own culture.”

I could not agree with her more.

The second in a series of three articles on this topic is called Cultural Appropriation: when authors crash and burn and the third is called Cultural Appropriation: when authors get it right.

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 is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Competition and Midnight at Malabar House launch

At approximately 5.17pm on 30th January 1948, one of the most famous men in history stepped out into the gardens of Birla House in New Delhi to lead a prayer service. As he approached a public congregation a young man stepped out from the crowd, greeted him warmly, then shot him three times in the chest with a Beretta. Onlookers said that Gandhi’s last words were ‘Hey, Ram’… meaning ‘Oh, God.’

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Gandhi’s death, in many ways, fashioned the India that was to follow, and, thus, the India that we see today. For more than two decades, he had led the Congress Party in its struggle to oust the British from the subcontinent. Through his blazing idealism, and personal example, he had inspired millions of his countrymen into peaceful protest.

Following his death, his friend and comrade, Jawaharlal Nehru, became the first Prime Minister of India. Taking advantage of the sympathy generated by Gandhi’s murder, he swept aside all opposition and set about fashioning post-Independence India.

It is in this turbulent, troubled India that my novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set.

The book opens on Dec 31st, 1949, Bombay.

In a basement office, a phone rings. It’s picked up by Persis Wadia, India’s first female police detective. She’s based at Malabar House, a small police station in the affluent southern half of the city, where officers in bad odour are routinely banished. Persis has just spent two gruelling years training for her role – only to find that in the rigidly paternalistic and misogynistic India of the time she faces an uphill task in making any headway in her chosen career.

But the midnight call changes everything.

The caller reports the murder of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot… and, just like that, the country’s most sensational case falls into her lap.

As 1950 dawns and India prepares to become the world’s largest republic, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself pursuing an investigation that becomes more political by the second. Navigating a society in turmoil, Persis, smart, stubborn and untested in the crucible of male hostility that surrounds her, must find a way to solve the murder – whatever the cost.

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Midnight at Malabar House is set just two years after Indian Independence, the horrors of Partition, and Gandhi’s assassination. India is still trying to work out what sort of democracy it is going to be. Social, political, and religious turmoil is rife in the country. Nehru’s economic reforms are pitting the old nawabs, maharajas, and feudal classes against the masses. Yet Bombay remains in its own bubble, incredibly cosmopolitan, a city of jazz and self-indulgence, with thousands of foreigners still living and working in the city.

Much of the India that we see today is grounded in events that occurred during that period, a period not often explored in fiction. Midnight at Malabar House attempts to shed light on that India.

Of course, at the book’s heart lies a complex mystery. Why was Sir James Herriot murdered? What do the various clues that Persis finds in his home mean? Her attempts to solve the murder soon lead her into conflict, not just with the establishment, and the prevailing social order, but with those who would seek to brush under the carpet the horrors of India’s fractious birth.

Not a woman to be easily deterred, Persis forges her own path into the darkness.

And as for Gandhi – why and who killed him?

Gandhi’s murderer was a Hindu nationalist named Nathuram Godse. He committed the murder because he felt that Gandhi had done too much to appease the Muslims in the newly-created country of Pakistan. It was neither the first nor the last religiously-motivated killing on the subcontinent.

Competition

If you choose to order the book, I would greatly appreciate it. Copies are available from bookshops big and small, and online, incl. here: https://amzn.to/2Q0AXNK

And to show my appreciation, if you tweet (or Facebook) me a picture of yourself with the book – or a picture of the book in your home (if you prefer not to be in the picture) – I shall pick the most creative ‘winner’ and send them a signed copy (with a personal message) of BAD DAY AT THE VULTURE CLUB – my last novel from the Baby Ganesh Agency series. You can find me on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK and Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/VaseemKhanOfficial/

Deadline: August 31st 2020

Twitter: https://twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK

Join my newsletter: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/

 

Eating the dead: the Parsees of India

Bad Day at the Vulture Club is the fifth novel in my Baby Ganesh Agency series. In this one, Inspector Chopra investigates the murder of a wealthy Parsee. Parsees are a small but influential community in India. Originally from Persia they are unique on the subcontinent because they do not cremate or bury their dead. Instead they leave them out in stone structures called Towers of Silence in a wooded area in the middle of Mumbai for vultures to eat. This process is called excarnation. I found this community incredibly fascinating when living in India, and thought it would make a great backdrop to a murder mystery.

The book is out now and you can buy a copy at your local bookseller (which would REALLY help them during the current post-lockdown economic situation) or by clicking here.

So who exactly are the Parsees and why do they hold vultures sacred?

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Parsees believe in a deity called Ahura Mazda – the wise lord. Fire is a physical representation of that deity. The principal prophet of Ahura Mazda was a man named Zoroaster – or Zarathustra – who lived around 600 BCE. He spoke about the concept of judgement after death, and of heaven and hell, greatly influencing some of the later Abrahamic religions. When Muslims conquered Persia in 640 CE and began slowly persecuting the Parsees – destroying their fire temples, initiating the jizya tax on non-Muslims, and, worst of all, mistreating dogs, an animal revered by Parsees, it proved to be the final straw. The Parsees fled Iran and headed towards India where they eventually settled, first in Gujarat and then in Bombay.

The community has been central to Bombay/Mumbai’s history and development for centuries. In fact, with luminaries ranging from industrialist Jamsetji Tata to Freddie Mercury, the Parsee community has helped shape the course of both India and the wider world.

Today, Parsee heritage and influence can be found in every nook and cranny of Mumbai – from the various Parsee businesses that have steered the growth of the city – including the Tata group, responsible for iconic buildings such as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel – to the city’s historic Parsee cafés. Parsee figures from the city ranging from Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawala, one of the founders of the Central Bank of India, and Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, to Cowasjee Davar who set up the country’s first cotton mill, leave behind a rich legacy.

Parsees consider fire and earth holy and thus do not bury or cremate their dead; this distinguishes them from Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Christians in the country. Parsees allow vultures to perform this rite. Vultures, abhorred my many, are incredibly valuable members of the ecosystem, and not just for Parsees. They perform a vital service in cleaning up carcasses – think of all the roadkill that is cleaned up each year seemingly by magic! They are amazing creatures, with an astonishing sense of smell. They have been much maligned in fiction, routinely equated to lawyers and newsmen … which, frankly, is an insult to vultures. (After all, I’ve never heard of a vulture printing false stories or bending the truth in court.)

Alas, Indian vultures have been on the Critically Endangered List since 2002. The population was decimated by manmade chemicals such as Diclofenac. Diclofenac was given to working animals to reduce joint pain – basically to arthritic cows and horses in order to keep them slaving for longer. The drug is believed to be swallowed by vultures with the flesh of dead cattle. 99.7% disappeared in less than 10 years, making it the fastest collapse in any avian population ever recorded.

towers of silence

As the vultures have declined the Parsees have had to adapt in surprising ways. How? That’s exactly what Inspector Chopra finds out as he investigates the murder of Cyrus Zorabian, a grandee from the Parsee community, a man who appears to have harboured dark secrets…