Within the region of South Asia, India and Pakistan have the greatest volume of crime fiction novels written in English. An unsurprising fact considering the history of England in the countries compared with say, Bhutan or Nepal. Furthermore, both India and Pakistan are experiencing an English language crime fiction renaissance, giving us plenty of novels to work with. In reading seven crime fiction novels- three from Pakistan and four from India- a number of common themes and trends were readily apparent across the border which we will explore in this blog. Although the novels cover a range of decades and vary in content from humorous, to supernatural, to deeply unsettling, they all point to a number of cultural anxieties and trends present in both countries.
The similarities between the crime fiction in these countries likely results from their closely tied history; they were both part of the British Empire until the Partition of 1947 at which point majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan were separated. In spite of their united origin, the social divide between the countries has been tense and violent, particularly in the Punjab and Kashmir regions of India. Although none of the novels deal heavily with racism and tension between Muslims and Indian, there are still aspects of the tension found in the novels, whether in negative connotation of those from Punjab, or stereotyping of Muslims in Indian novels. However, since the novels don’t directly address the anxieties manifested between the countries, we were able to find mostly consistent themes across borders instead of stark contrasts and high tension.
The Novels We Read:
The Menagerie by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay (India) – A work of detective fiction where Byomkesh, a private investigator, looks into the mysterious depositing of motor parts on Golap Colony, the disappearance of an actress, and the deaths of colony members. The colony’s residents are former members of the upper class who had to give up their wealth and move to the colony as retribution for their crimes, giving each a tainted past.
Necropolis by Avtar Singh (India) – A novel published in 2016 that follows a Deputy Chief of Police around Delhi as he attempts to solve a number of interconnected crimes that all somehow relate to a woman who may be immortal and the leader of a self-fashioned team vampires who cuts off the fingers of random victims. It’s not a scary, thrilling or particularly original novel, but simply a pretty typical police oriented crime tale. The novel focuses greatly on the city of New Delhi and how it’s past is both erased by and blended with its growing modernity as the edges between suburban and urban, and rich and poor shift and blur, which makes for a mysterious backdrop for a crime novel.
Riot, by Shashi Tharoor (India)- This novel revolves around the death of Priscilla Hart in a riot, as her parents and a journalist, Randy Diggs, try to figure out whether her death was intentional, due to her affair with a married man, or her volunteer work. Hart’s identity as an American woman adds a more directly postcolonial focus to the novel because it forces the direct exploration of the current relationship between the West and the postcolony.
Witness the Night, by Kishwar Desai (India) – A modern thriller, and Desai’s debut novel, follows a social worker / detective as she unravels the case of a thirteen-person murder in a small town in India. Simran, the social worker, faces the stigma of being a woman as she navigates the corrupt police force and social taboos surrounding gender. Durga, the prime suspect and daughter of the dead wealthy family, maintains her innocence, even at the threat of force commitment to a mental asylum by the family’s caretaker. A remarkable book about gender influence, the wealth gap in India, and police corruption.
The Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif (Pakistan) – A comedy crime novel exploring the conspiracies surrounding the death of General Zia-ul Haq, the dictator of Pakistan, in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988. Ali Shigri is the novel’s main narrator, who is a junior trainee officer in the Pakistani Air Force. Throughout the novel, he seeks revenge on General Zia for, what he believes to be, the staged suicide of his father, who once served the General. Along with Shigri, multiple individuals are revealed who hope to assassinate General Zia, which reinforces the extreme hatred his country felt for him during his rule. This book explores the issues of police/government corruption, the use of religion, and conspiracy theories all through a humorous dialogue and narration.
The House of Fear by Ibn-e-safi (Pakistan) – The House of Fear, written in 1953, is one of the first books in a 100+ Urdu book series written by Pakistani author Ibn-e- Safi. In it, dead bodies have been found in an abandoned house, each bearing three identical dagger marks, exactly five inches apart and Detective Imran’s help is enlisted by Captain Fayaaz of the Secret Service. Although Imran comes across at all times as a fool and a madman who spouts nonsense about Urdu poetry and folklore, he is actually a genius when it comes to solving crimes and is the commander of the entire Secret Service, a fact unknown to virtually everyone, including most of the secret agents. The book is meant to be a blend of mystery, adventure, and humor, but the humor was lacking or simply didn’t translate well.
The Prisoner by Omar Shahid Hamid (Pakistan) – The Prisoner, taking place in Karachi, follows Constantine, a Christian police officer, in his attempt to recover a kidnapped American journalist before his public execution on Christmas Day and before the scheduled arrival of the U.S president in Pakistan. Written by a former member of the Karachi police where he had served for some time as head of counterterrorism, the novel delves into the particularities of police corruption, class, and fate.
The theme of police corruption ran through a number of the crime fiction novels, whether it was a major component of the text, extended as far as one minor corrupt character, or was not present at all. The range of representation of police corruption in these novels centered on crime is significant as both Pakistan and India cope with police corruption. In The Prisoner, police corruption is an extremely prevalent theme throughout. With this, however, is the idea that this corruption is exacerbated by a system in which not taking part results in missed opportunities, less income, and less connections. A quote from the novel which represents this well occurs when Constantine discusses why he has taken part in corrupt activities rampant in the police force: “but I do it because I want to survive in this world, I want to try and give my children a better life than I had, and I cannot do that if I do not become a part of this system” (Hamid 115). If police officers want to succeed and a carve out a future for their families, then the benefits of corruption is often the only way. Throughout the story, though, it becomes clear that not all police officers are the same type of corrupt. There is very much a gradient where those who impede justice due to personal goals are seen much more negatively than the average corrupt police officer who may even use corruption as a source of serving justice i.e jailing a criminal with the funds to buy their way off the radar and out of court. Other novels demonstrated this gradient as well, as in Necropolis where one corrupt officer is an assassin for hire, while others simply won’t work to solve crimes perpetrated on Muslims or foreigners. These novels demonstrate that police corruption is not one size fits all but can come in many forms within the force.
While class plays an important role in these novels it is not represented as fixed or permanent. This is likely a result of the fairly modern setting of the novels, because in the last century it has become far easier to move from one class to another across the globe. However, in part due to the long history of the Caste system in India, one’s past social class cannot be fully erased, therefore there is no totally free movement. In Necropolis, for example, a great distinction is made between old money and new, which is a very universal line to draw. The new money families, who within the novel’s context gain their wealth illicitly, are ostentatious and over the top. The men buy palatial, absurdly decorated homes while the women wear tight designer clothes and lots of jewelry and makeup. Whereas the old money families possess “effortless taste” and furnishings “with a backstory,” which means that no matter how high new money people reach, they will never be on the same plane as old money because their past limits them. In The Menagerie the inverse essentially occurs when the residents of the colony are forced to give up their wealth and move away from their history and start over. However, they cannot fully start over because they are bound to the colony by their past actions, even without the threat of crime.
Class plays a somewhat different, but equally significant role in The Prisoner, set in Pakistan. Those with wealth are not distinguished between old and new money. Rather, the wealthy as an entity, whether criminal or not, are all seen as something to aspire to. The wealthy holds the power to influence the inner workings of the justice system. An example of this is when Constantine locates the ‘untrackable’ Tension, a dangerous criminal. It is soon discovered, however, that the only reason the police have been unable to bring him in, is because of the obnoxiously large stash of cash he uses to bribe them. Thus, it is the notion of class that helps perpetuate corruption within the police force: “The thing within our society, sir, is that if you are not a rich or powerful person… you need to have access to power just to survive” (Hamid 114). This mentality is what provokes Maqsood among other police officers to pander to the wealthy in order to maintain connections and move closer to obtaining that power.
Sexism and taboos that limited female action and power was a common theme in our novels. This patriarchal influence is part of longstanding Indian and Pakistani traditions. Subverting femininity was an especially common part of social life and the inner workings of culture. In Witness the Night, the main character continuously confronts the ridiculous standards imposed on women in India. For instance, foeticide is such a big problem in the novel because wives are pushed to have sons and reject daughters. Sons had a more positive impact on the family’s wealth and social status, while daughters were considered a burden. The only value of a daughter was the husband they were ultimately paired with. When the main character confronts police officials, they make remarks about women’s place in society, how they should not be working or that her job should be left to men.
Sexism pervades Necropolis in a similar, but far less horrifying and more quotidien way. Women are boxed into stereotypical roles: whores (literal prostitutes who are morally judged for their profession); rich, bedazzled housewives; naggy old women; dumb, blonde foreigners and so forth. Even the female police detective is subjected to constant sexism, for example when she is left in charge of a crime scene and instructs those under her to watch the body, they respond by calling her a “bitch” (Singh 168). This is the only time that she does not defer authority to a man in the course of the text. Significantly, although the novel deals a fair amount with sexual relations, Smita, the female officer always abstains. She and the only other female in the novel with any real power are sexless and shown almost only in relation to their work.
The sexism in the novels demonstrates that in spite of their modernity, (Witness the Night was published in 2010, and Necropolis in 2016) women are still treated as lesser than men. Additionally, they demonstrate that women’s bodies are not autonomous but can be subjected to the desires of men around them, be it through foeticide in Witness the Night or rape in Necropolis. These novels feature women in more present and active roles than a number of the other texts we read, but this clearly did not lead to more fair and equal representation.
In a number of the novels, the crime being tracked isn’t just a simple murder or robbery but something more original. In Witness the Night, for example foeticide and the murder of thirteen people by both poison and stabbing are prominent crimes in the book. On the lighter end of the spectrum, the main crime in Necropolis is the cutting off of a single finger from random people. In both novels the motivation for the crimes ultimately boils down to social goals and pressures. In Witness the Night the family kills their infant daughters because boys are more valuable to a family than girls, while in Necropolis it comes to light that not only are fingers being taken by self-fashioned vampires, but also freely given by poor citizens hoping to game some form of power through secret societies, and cutting off their fingers as payment. In a different way, the crime in The Case of Exploding Mangoes is peculiar as well, for it tracks possible explanations for the explosion of a real Pakistani dictator’s plane, with both mangoes and a crow among the suspects. It is similar to Necropolis in that both attempt to blend the absurd and the realistic in an attempt to offer some form of rational explanation to an event that could either relate to the universe, as with a crow flying into a plane or men offering their fingers to the universe in hopes of a positive outcome (which happens in reality), or to maliciousness with a bomb in a plane or criminals drugging people and claiming fingers. In both cases the narrative blending the supernatural, superstition and real struggles together through writing about these odd crimes.
A common theme among the South Asian crime fiction novels was the unsatisfactory conclusions; despite the labels of mystery or thriller for many of them, mysteries that spanned hundreds of pages were wrapped up in a single chapter or never fully resolved. Part of the issue, arguably, could be with reading the novels through a Western focused mindset in which more conclusive endings in certain types of literature are often expected, especially in crime fiction novels. When it comes to detective and mystery novels, they tend to unravel the mystery practically and through the use of progressively discovered clues and pieces of evidence. In The House of Fear, much of the evidence discovered seemed to be skipped over and summarized at a later date or was found entirely ‘off-screen,’ only to conveniently be announced to the reader as a way to help fix plot holes in the mystery.
The lack of resolution could also stem from a rise in corruption in the postcolonial governments and police agencies that affect not only the countries themselves, but the literature. In a book where the police are the corrupt members of a society, how could there be an acceptable ending to a murder case? As an article in Images, a Pakistani media and news company, said, “Pakistani fiction in English reflects the society that breeds it – full of possibility, yes, but hindered by a system that ought to have righted itself” (Zubair).
This idea of finding justice when members of the police are corrupt individuals themselves is particularly noticeable in The Prisoner. While the ending wraps up nicely, it is unsatisfying due to the level of corruption that is cause for the tidy finale. It is largely due to the corruption of one police officer that determines the course of the novel as well as its subsequent finish, and it is this very same police officer that ultimately reaps the benefits of it. As mentioned before in the case of this novel, corruption is presented on a scale where the most morally corrupt police officers receive no penalty while the most grossly corrupt are lumped with the criminals. Through a western lens, this gradient might be difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to accept as positive in a crime fiction novel. The fact that this corruption is looked on as so positive, perhaps ties into the very nature of Pakistani novels written in English.
Another common theme among the South Asian crime-fiction novels is the concept of religion and its impact on the plot. In fact, it is in religion that we see the greatest contrast between Indian and Pakistani novels. Oftentimes, in Pakistan, the ideals of Islam are expressed throughout the novels as a way to guide the character’s and their decision making. Considering the strong hold religion has on Southern Asia and its culture, it is apparent why its ideals and concepts are expressed throughout the novels written in this region. Islam is prevalent in the novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif through the character of General Zia uq-Haq, dictator of Pakistan, who takes his religion so seriously that he uses passages from the Quran as a guide for his political decisions regarding the country. General Zia was known for his extreme views of Islam, and “many people in Pakistan blame [him] for the rise of extremism in their country” (Shams). Hanif takes General Zia’s religious dedication and highlights the absurdity of it by using it as the sole influence for his political choices, as “he had always consulted the [Quran] for guidance and always found the answers he was looking for” (Hanif 33). General Zia would open the Quran, and whichever passage he came across would be his guide for that day. His extreme views regarding Islam influenced General Zia’s rule (Shams).
While in Pakistani novels Islam is seen as a guiding force, in Indian novels it is seen as something to be looked down upon, particularly for its customs. Furthermore, while The Case of Exploding Mangoes religion plays a Islam role, in Indian novels Hinduism is a far less prominent issue. In Necropolis, for example, Hinduism is mostly addressed only as a general way to categorize people, as if by regionality, or in historical context. It plays no role in the character’s actions. The bias against Muslims however, does impact their actions, and leads them to be less motivated in their pursuit of justice for a Muslim victim, while more actively pursuing a potentially Muslim assailant. As mentioned in the introduction, a major point of contention between the two countries is the difference of religion so it is unsurprising that even in novels that don’t directly address the tension, it can still be felt and seen.
Within the novels, weather was used as a tool for foreshadowing, establishing tone, and emphasizing the physical oppression of characters. In The Menagerie, any mention of fog or dark storm clouds were indicated that the investigation was about to take a complicated turn. Both allowed for secret meetings to occur undercover, murders to be committed, and spying to take place. The secrecy that these natural phenomena permitted complicated Byomkesh’s investigation into the events on Golap Colony. It also contrasted the novel’s logical tone by shrouding bits of evidence and emphasizing elements of mystery. Rain and sunshine, in the novel were used to foreshadow the revelation of new evidence, conclusion or direction in the investigation. An example of this occurs when it is Byomkesh devises his plan to discover the murders using a photo and an envelope. In the novel, the scene opens with the sun breaking through the clouds after a rainstorm the previous night. The literal break in the clouds is a metaphor for a break in the case. Similar is true in the investigatory process illustrated in Necropolis. Fog, along with the cold provide an indication of the progress of the investigation; just when the lead detective thinks he is beginning to understand the case a fog rolls in and the lead Vampire appears from nowhere. Additionally, the crimes committed grow increasingly sinister as the weather grows colder until some level of clarity and resolution is reached in late spring.
Additionally, in The Menagerie, Necropolis, The Prisoner, and Moth Smoke weather adds physical stress to the emotional journey of character’s narratives. The sun and heat usually are usually accompanied by a slowing of pace. They emphasize an exhaustive toll the body pays when trying to compensate for the uncomfortableness of being overheated. In some cases heat was also an indicator of a potential emotional explosion. Experiences with the cold differed such that they were either moments of comfort and relief, or frustration. In moments of comfort, the pace was casual or accelerated. Where the cold signified frustration, the pace stalled or sedated.
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