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

Libraries: the old, the new, the weird… and the plain disgusting

It’s currently libraries week, a perfect opportunity to meditate on the role that libraries play in our societies, and to confront the ongoing undermining of the library system. In this article, I want to approach the subject a little differently. I’m going to take a brief tour through the history of libraries, from the oldest to the newest, throwing in a handful of facts, curios, and related baggage to season the stew.

The oldest known library was founded in the 7th century B.C. in Nineveh in modern day Iraq by the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, a rare bibliophile ruler who stocked his library with some thirty thousand cuneiform tablets looted from Babylonia and other cities his armies had pulverised. The library’s prized possession: a 4,000-year-old copy of the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ – an epic poem recognised as one of the earliest surviving great works of literature. 

The title of most recognisable library from antiquity, however, goes to the Great Library of Alexandria. Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C., control of Egypt fell to his former general Ptolemy I Soter, who drew up plans for a grand library in the city of Alexandria – though historians believe that it was probably his son Ptolemy II who actually built it. The library, housing some half a million papyrus on shelves known as bibliothekai, made Alexandria a centre of world learning, drawing in the greatest minds of the age (including the likes of Archimedes) and becoming home to seminal works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and the natural sciences. 

Contrary to popular opinion the library did not vanish in a single fiery cataclysm. Its decline was gradual, the corrosive legacy of a late-Ptolemaic ‘purge of intellectuals’, Roman neglect, and a lack of funding. (You’d be excused for thinking that this sounds all too familiar.)

From antiquity to the modern. 

In 1800, the US Congress established the Library of Congress in Washington D.C, now fondly considered America’s ‘national library’. In 1814, the library was set alight by British troops. Thomas Jefferson donated his personal book collection – some 6000 volumes – to replace the books that had been lost.

Today, the Library of Congress is one of the world’s largest libraries, housing more than 160 million items and the largest rare book collection in North America. That collection includes a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of only three in the world, and a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating back to 2040 B.C, one of the oldest known pieces of writing. In addition, the Library of Congress houses the largest comic book collection in the United States – over six thousand titles. 

And the weirdest items stored in the LOC? How about a lock of Thomas Jefferson’s hair? Or the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he died (two pairs of glasses, a six-blade pocketknife, a quartz-and-gold watch fob, a linen handkerchief with “A. Lincoln” stitched in red, newspaper clippings, and a leather wallet – with, of all things, a $5 Confederate note inside). Or even a five-second video of a man sneezing – the first copyrighted motion picture in the US.

From America to Germany.

Opening in 2011 and with a price tag of 80 million euros, the Stuttgart City Library is possibly the most futuristic-looking library on the planet. Built as a giant cube, it is constructed out of pale grey concrete that visually frames an array of frosted glass bricks. Inside, the minimalist white-on-white colour scheme – designed by Korean architect Yi Eun-young – looks like something from a sci-fi film. Beautiful!

And what about those who use the libraries? 

The eccentricities of library-goers are the pub-banter of librarians all over the world. The users who shoot up in the toilets, or decide to engage in amorous liaisons in the aisles. The ones who pee in quiet corners (yes, it happens!), or sit on public computer terminals nonchalantly surfing porn as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. And let’s not forget those who use the toilets as their personal bathrooms, or those who fall asleep in comfy chairs snoring loud enough to wake the dead. And, increasingly, there are the belligerent gangs of teenagers, the smokers, the closet arsonists, the raucous, the furious, the homeless, the mentally ill. 

Librarians have no choice but to weather every insult, every indiscretion with stoicism. It’s a demanding job.

Meanwhile, the ground beneath their feet continues to erode. It’s no secret that libraries face savage budget cuts. The blame for this is placed on falling public usage and book borrowing. Yet this is a reductive argument, perpetuating a vicious cycle that, ultimately, will rob us of our most egalitarian places.

I grew up in a household where money was scarce and reading was not a priority. The library system enabled me to access books that I wanted to read, and to discover, in time, that I too wanted to be a creator of words. I wrote my first novel aged seventeen, inspired directly by the discovery, in my local library, of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series. Without libraries I would not be an author today.

And that, in a nutshell, is the magic of libraries. 

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 #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.