Vaseem Khan in conversation with Desi Reads.
It’s not often we hear that the hero of a fictional crime series is a Mumbai based retired middle aged police inspector who happens to have inherited a baby elephant. Meet Inspector Chopra, author Vaseem Khan’s male protagonist, in his award winning fictional series of Baby Ganesh Agency books, who sets out to solve crimes across Khan’s view of India today. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was a Times best seller and Amazon’s voted best debut book. Four more successful novels followed up this debut.
Raised in Newham in east London, Vaseem Khan, a management consultant, moved to India in 1997 where he spent ten years consulting to a construction group who were building 5-star hotels. Over that decade, he watched India’s economy grow and a new wave of wealth and middle class creation. That wealth, however, didn’t’ trickle down to the slums.
Khan says, “At the age of 23, whilst I was having the time of my life in Mumbai and living a very comfortable lifestyle, a friend of mine took me to Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum at the time. Off came the rose tinted glasses as I witnessed the sort of inequality that I had never seen before.”
What had started off as just a crime series had now become Khan’s memories of India, which he has infused into his stories. Breaking the stereotypes of how India is often portrayed in mainstream media, Khan’s stories take the reader to a non-romanticised side of India.
“I’m certainly not criticising films like Slum Dog Millionaire or the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but it’s not the India that we recognise. I’ve been to the slums and guess what - not all the slum kids are constantly smiling and happy! Although my novels are warm and funny, with a good dose of charm, they aim to show the grittier aspects of India too.”
The Baby Ganesh Agency series invokes Khan’s own experiences of living the Mumbai life, describing the city as a collection of buildings from different eras, steadily developing into a mini Manhattan immersed in a plethora of cultures.
“Living in a city like Mumbai, you get a nuance of how people live, how they talk and interact. Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city with people coming from all over India to live there. Characters from all these different communities pop up in my stories - people of different religions and backgrounds interacting with each other. Each of my books tries to showcase a different aspect of modern India. For instance, in my third book I explore Bollywood, with the kidnapping of a Bollywood star. I love Indian cinema and this book allows me to get behind the scenes of Bollywood – after all, you can’t write books about India without exploring Bollywood at some point!”
Also in this third novel, The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star, Khan touches on the eunuch community, typically shunned by everyday society. His first encounter with the eunuchs occurred when he had only just arrived in Mumbai and he was fascinated by their place in Indian culture.
“It was well known that eunuchs are outcasts and marginalised and often show up to festivities uninvited where people give them cash. People may be under the belief that blessings from eunuchs are considered lucky, however the reality is that no one wants to be cursed! They have no voice, yet I have seen how nowadays some large corporate firms capitalise on this fear of the eunuch curse by sending them out to collect debts on their behalf!”
South Asian readers are no strangers to the concept of mythology and superstition presiding over their daily lives. So is it fear over belief that drives Indians to remain complacent in deep mythology? Was Baby Ganesh written with this view in mind?
“Actually, the first day I arrived in Mumbai, within the first thirty minutes of my arrival, I witnessed an elephant in the midst of all the traffic chaos. It’s just not something we would see in London! Later, not far from where I lived in Andheri, I came across a circus elephant that had been kicked out of the circus. I often visited him and he became my friend and a character in my series. The elephant in my books doesn’t go out there and actually solve the crimes, but he is an important metaphor in the book as he represents what I loved about India. I met my now wife in Mumbai, a Hindu, and she took me to Hindu temples where I started to realise the importance of Lord Ganesh in Indian people’s lives. It’s things like these that aren’t always known to Western audiences.”
Khan’s series aims to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, predominately because he wrote the book based on his own wonderful memories of India, which he feels, will make the writing relatable. By infusing himself in these cultures he became part of the everyday Indian life. So what about the main character Chopra himself?
“There are parts of me within Inspector Chopra. Chopra hates ginger and loves cricket, as do I. Chopra and his wife don’t have children, which is a big deal in India, especially after being married for so long. In Western crime fiction, the male protagonist would have been a tough, hard-drinking divorcee going on a bender. I couldn’t write Chopra’s character in this way as it would not have been authentic. In my books, the reader will discover Chopra’s everyday life outside of crime – as a middle class citizen living on the fifteenth floor of a society flat.” Khan’s writing fills a gap in the literary world where characters like Chopra are not heard about or written about enough. With the emergence of crossover plays and films such as The Lunch Box impressing global audiences, it’s clear that readers are willing to invest in more low-key but authentic stories. “There is no major violence or any form of offence in my books. They depict real life people with real-life struggles. My books focus on the depth of the characters, which readers want to go back and revisit. The baby elephant’s role almost fills that childless gap for Chopra and his wife. The journey of the family and human emotion that is evoked is what readers want to follow. One of my books, Murder at the Grand Raj Palace is based on an American being murdered in the fictional Grand Raj Palace hotel – which is based on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. I spent a lot of time there whilst living in India, yet very few know the history behind it, in that Tata built the hotel after being refused entry to another British run hotel because he was Indian, so he built his own where Indians would be welcomed.”
With his books being translated into 12 languages, it’s evident that global readers are vested in Khan’s characters and want to witness them develop as well as seeing India from a view that is recognisable and relatable. So after five books, what next for Inspector Chopra?
“The next book in the series comes out in May 2019 and is called Bad Day at the Vulture Club. It will introduce the Parsi culture – another part of Indian society that is not written about often. The Parsis are a very wealthy yet intimate culture that played a huge part in building India’s economy. There is also a screenplay that has been developed on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. So watch this space, he could be on our screens soon.”