Old Delhi, 1857. The grand home of one of the city’s well-known nawabs is buzzing with the promise of an exciting evening of poetry, petty rivalries, and gluttony — until a prominent blue blood is murdered. Cut to 1920s India. In Bombay, Perveen Mistry, the city’s only female lawyer, takes up the cause of three Muslim women who’ve suspiciously signed away their entire inheritance to a charity. In Calcutta, Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee of the police force are faced with the assassination of a maharaja and a kingdom in turmoil as the British try to rein in India’s royals. And in Bangalore, a murder on the grounds of an elite club leads the newly married Kaveri, a housewife, to investigate and save a falsely accused victim from the gallows. Fast forward to about 30 years later. In independent India, a rare copy of Dante’s classic Divine Comedy goes missing, and Persis Wadia, India’s only female police detective, solves a series of mind-boggling riddles à la The Da Vinci Code to find the manuscript.
The three scenarios, based in three different Indian cities are from three novels authored by different Indian writers, but what they have in common — apart from murder and mayhem — are the vibrant historical settings drawn from colonial and post-colonial India. Indian historical crime fiction has captured the imagination of India — and the West — with writers like Nev March, Sujata Massey, author of the Perveen Mistry stories, Vaseem Khan, who writes the Persis Wadia books, Abir Mukherjee of the Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, and Harini Nagendra of The Bangalore Detectives Club fame being all the rage in literary circuits across North America, Europe and South Asia.
Colonialism and its lingering influence are a common thread through these tomes, including Raza Mir’s Murder at the Mushaira, set during India’s first war of Independence. Legendary real-life Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib is imagined as a detective in this rich and delightful recreation of 19th-century Old Delhi. “Readers, reviewers, experts have led me to believe that people found interesting how the mutiny took on such a broad geographical character in such a short period of time,” says Mir, who is a management professor in the US, and an expert on Urdu poetry. And this is just one aspect.
“People are bored of reading recycled western books and plots,” Mir adds. “Publishers made the assumption that there’s no market for historical Indian fiction, but clearly there is.” Mir wrote Murder at the Mushaira as a solitary novel, but it developed such a fan base that he is now writing a prequel, Murder at the Imambara.
“Historical fiction set during the Raj era was about the colonisers,” says Massey. “I wanted to showcase alternate histories, where Indian women at the time were doing great work in healthcare and law and were part of the nationalist movement.” Mistry, who is Massey’s protagonist in these books, is based on Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female lawyer.
“Crime fiction is a really entertaining way to talk about things that matter,” says Khan, whose most recent book, Death of a Lesser God, was a Guardian book of the year in December 2023. “We often mythologise India, but there’s a new India with towering skylines, which sit uneasily with massive slums, occasional religious tension and caste trouble. My books show where this modern India comes from – the Independence movement and the partition, which shaped the country as we see it now.”
As the West confronts its role in the spread of colonialism and slavery, and amid calls for a moral reckoning and meaningful action towards reparation, conversations around diversity and the younger generation’s desire to shape the world more equally have become an inherent part of popular culture today. In these books, India’s varied history is seen through the native lens, a perspective welcomed by Indians and non-Indians alike.
For example, in her recent book Mistress of Bhatia House, Massey takes up abortion as the central theme, weaving a story of murder and intrigue around it. She explores the consequences of the British deeming abortion a crime in a colonised India, and how low-caste women become unwitting victims of abuse and Victorian morality.
Mukherjee, of Scottish Bengali descent, and whose books are set in colonial Calcutta right after the First World War, says, “The landscape for British Asian crime writers has changed even in the last seven years.
We came at a time when there was a need to see things differently, but even a decade ago, we might not have been published.” Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series is being developed as a web series, with Kunal Nayyar of The Big Bang Theory fame as actor and producer.
Bridging the gap
The success of these books in the UK, where the history of colonialism is missing from school syllabi, indicates how far diverse migrant communities have integrated into western society. Most writers of this genre — barring Nagendra — are well-integrated immigrants or the children of immigrants who expertly bridge the gap between what Indians inherently identify with and what resonates with non-Indians. That these books raise global issues, cutting across societies — social and criminal justice, reproductive rights, women’s rights, racism, communalism and nationalism — has ensured their enduring popularity beyond borders.
“Crime fiction set in India has the potential to showcase Indian diversity in a way that has not been attempted before, moving away from both an overly romanticised image of Hindi films and a cesspool of terrible, misogynistic characters,” says Kaushiki Sanyal, CEO of CPL India and an avid reader of these books.
Atlanta-based psychologist Ifetayo Ojelade writes about Nagendra’s work: “I spend my days dealing with trauma survivors, much of which has a historical, economic, and cultural component. Reading stories written by BIPOC authors is my primary escape. Dr Nagendra’s books are so refreshing because they don’t fall into basic western stereotypes about India and don’t pathologise the experiences of Indian people.” Nagendra’s books are cosy and intimate, highlighting the strong bond between a woman in 1920s Bangalore and her husband while she goes around solving mysteries — all this while navigating growing unrest and a desire for independence.
“We read books about places we’re not familiar with because it’s a way to travel,” says Nagendra. “In the West, there’s a huge interest in trying to understand the experience of the colonised from their lens.”
In showing the world an Indian past that is completely unfamiliar — one where women are lawyers, doctors, spies, murderers and freedom fighters, — books can discuss themes that appeal to larger people. And while history is written by winners, that Indian writers are enjoying their moment in the sun says a lot about where the country stands today. ●