I first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when I arrived in the city of Mumbai, India to work as a management consultant. It was the most unusual sight I had ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels. I was born in London in 1973, went on to gain a Bachelors degree in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics, before spending a decade on the subcontinent helping one of India’s premier hotel groups establish a chain of five-star environmentally friendly ‘ecotels’ around the country. I returned to the UK in 2006 and have since worked at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where I am continually amazed at the way modern science is being used to tackle crime. Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.
“Absolutely charming and a thoroughly absorbing read” by Mike Craven, crime author. (See full review and 25 questions with Vaseem Khan on his blog here)
A bit more about my job …
Crime science is an approach to crime prevention, reduction and detection that attempts to use science from a range of disciplines – both engineering sciences and social sciences – to tackle crime. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by brilliant colleagues all working on crime and security topics ranging from new forensic science techniques to developing the next generation of cyber-security measures. My role involves managing large-scale research projects. I spend a lot of time with academic colleagues and partners from the worlds of policing and security, as we seek to bring that research into the public domain.
And a little plug for my department …
The UCL Department of Security and Crime Science is the first university department in the world devoted specifically to reducing crime and other risks to personal and national security. It does this through teaching, research, public policy analysis and by the dissemination of evidence-based information on crime reduction and security enhancement. The department brings together politicians, scientists, designers and practitioners to examine patterns in crime and security threats, and to find practical methods to disrupt these patterns. The department’s mission is to change policy and practice. In the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2015) 100% of the department’s research activity was judged to have world-leading impact, placing the department joint-1st out of 62 departments around the UK in the relevant unit of assessment.
Why did you decide to write a detective novel?
For me a great crime series begins with a memorable detective, someone who, over time, we become intimately familiar with. We pick up the next book in the series and instantly become enmeshed in their world, their lives. We worry when they get into trouble; we are elated when they make headway on a case. They become as real to us as any of our friends. I wanted to create a detective novel where the reader feels that same affinity for the lead character – or characters in my case – Inspector Ashwin Chopra, and his young ward, the baby elephant named Ganesha, who turns up one day on Chopra’s doorstep with very little explanation for his presence.
Where did the spark for this book come from?
You could say this book was born on my first day in India. I first went there aged 23. My father was born in India but moved to Pakistan as a boy during Partition. My mother was born in Pakistan and they both came to the UK 40 years ago. I grew up hearing about India and in 1997 the company I was working for secured a contract to work with a 5-star hotel chain based in Mumbai. I remember vividly walking out from Bombay airport, into a wall of sizzling hot air, something I’d never experienced in the east end of London where I grew up. The first thing I saw was a number of lepers and beggars milling about the taxi rank. At the first traffic junction we stopped at there was a thumping on the window. I turned to see a tall well-built gentleman in a sari. My first eunuch. I turned back to the road and there, lumbering through the traffic as cool as you please was an enormous grey Indian elephant with a mahout on its back. This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually became a part of the novel I wrote when I returned to England ten years later.
The central character in your books, Inspector Chopra, both loves and worries about his city of Mumbai… is that the same way you felt about it, when you lived there?
I fell in love with the city as soon as I arrived. Mumbai is an assault on the senses. In fact, if you really want to know what Mumbai looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like, and even tastes like, you should read my book. However, after a while I began to see that there were aspects of this amazing place that required me to look closer. My first trip to the Dharavi slum left me open-mouthed. Poverty is endemic, but what is more endemic is the acceptance of poverty, of poor sanitation, of limited medical facilities, of terrible transport infrastructure, all the things we take for granted in the West. There is a massive gap between rich and poor, and although social change is taking place there are still prejudices ingrained in people’s thinking, such as the caste system, or religious differences. Chopra and I both worry about these aspects of what is undoubtedly the greatest city on the subcontinent.
Do you think the Mumbai in the novel is the one people will find if they visit it now?
Mumbai is an eternal city. It is constantly changing but its soul will always remain quintessentially Indian. So, yes, I think you will find the same Mumbai if you go there – and I do encourage everyone to get to India at least once in their lives. At present most urban cities in India are facing a cultural onslaught from westernisation – which brings both good and bad, as I describe in my novel. At the same time religion and tradition still play an enormous part in the lives of most Indians. The physical landscape of Mumbai is constantly evolving – with new multiplexes and malls and massive office buildings. Yet these still sit side by side (sometimes uneasily) with slums, and beautiful old buildings which showcase the many different eras of India’s past – from ancient Hindu temples, to Mughal architecture, to the colonial edifices built by the British such as the magnificent Victoria train terminus, as it was formerly known.
Of course, the other key character in the book is the baby elephant, Ganesha – did you worry at all about how to fit him into the novel?
In a very real sense Ganesha gatecrashed the party. Almost from the very beginning he was in the back of my mind demanding to be included in the novel. I adore elephants. They are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and I knew that a baby elephant would strike a chord with readers. After all, I couldn’t be the only person out there entranced by these majestic animals who for years now have come under threat from poaching and the loss of their natural habitat. I thought it would be fun and different to include a baby elephant in a crime novel. Having said this once I came up with a plot and a great lead character for the novel, I still couldn’t work out how to include the elephant. The dilemma was solved for me one day by Sir David Attenborough. I remember watching a documentary about elephants on the Discovery Channel. I went to sleep with elephants on the brain. Next morning I woke up and almost the first thing that popped into my head was a line, a line which eventually became the first line from the book … “On the day that he was due to retire Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant”. And at that moment I knew the elephant would be a central character in the novel. Not a gimmick – he doesnt talk or solve the mysteries – Chopra does all that, but a genuine participant in the story.
Are there any authors who particularly inspired you?
I grew up on a diet of science fiction so my first inspirations were Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Greg Bear. I actually wrote a heap of SF stories in my teens – I still have the handwritten drafts. I later fell in love with literary fiction where writers like John Irving inspire me – A Prayer for Owen Meany is my favourite ‘Great American novel’. I admire writers who write with courage – I just read The Help by Kathryn Stockett – about the lives of African-American maids in the American South in the 1960s – and thought it was incredible; the month before I read The Fault in our Stars, and haven’t laughed so much in ages, even though John Green was tackling the subject of teens with terminal cancer – he did such a brilliant job. I got hooked on crime fiction in my twenties. Ian Rankin’s Rebus series is wonderful – I am in awe of how he effortlessly creates a character like Rebus who has so many flaws and yet we are beguiled by him. I love Jeffrey Deaver’s quadrapalegic hero Lincoln Rhymes and his partnership with feisty Amelia Sachs. Deaver is brilliant at putting in twists and I think every young crime author can learn from him. America’s Michael Connelly is my favourite – his L.A. based detective Harry Bosch is my kind of crime fighter – grim, gritty and utterly implacable in his mission. That mission is one that Inspector Chopra identifies with. To pursue justice no matter what it takes, no matter what it costs him personally.