From Feluda created by Satyajit Ray to Byomkesh Bakshi written by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, most of the iconic detective characters of Indian literature are more than half a century old. In fact, in recent times, little has been done in the detective or crime thrillers genre, and one of the only worthy addition to the clan of world-class detective inspectors from India– the likes of Inspector Rebus and Hercule Poirot — that comes to mind is Anita Nair’s character, Inspector Borei Gowda.
In the last decade, Borei Gowda has appeared in two of Nair’s books — Cut Like Wound (2012) and Chain of Custody (2016) and have already won a strong fan base among crime fiction lovers in the country. In an interview to News18, Nair revealed that one of the shocking display of fans’ fondness for this character, that left her gobsmacked was when a man got the same tattoo that Gowda has in her books.
“Once a male reader had sent me a picture where he had replicated Inspector Gowda’s tattoo on his arm,” revealed the author with an aminated expression of shock and disbelief.
The attractive thing about characters that Nair create is their realness. Inspector Gowda, for instance, has all the Sherlockian instincts that are required for crime-solving, and a few eccentricities too, but he isn’t in any way half as absurdly unreal as Doyle’s famous detective. Neither does he have any of the quirks and charms of Christie’s Poirot. Slightly squishy in the middle, Borei Gowda, is more likely to resemble the cops you encounter on the streets or your local thana (police station).
When we first meet him in Cut Like Wound he is a booze drinking, motorbike loving cop, whose marriage is in shambles, and who is constantly being penalized for having professional integrity and for being honest. He is deeply flawed, and hard to love, but Nair manages to make a hero out of him. In the second book, he is a far more matured and put-together version of himself, but not an ounce less interesting than he was in his previous avatar.
Nair, who has often called Gowda her male ‘alter ego’ revealed that all her characters are discoveries she herself makes during the process of writing. “In my mind, I always have a rough sketch of a character and I just feed in information to build them up. But, the joy of writing is when you discover that the character acquires dimensions, which you couldn’t have consciously planned. It happens in a very instinctive, and unconscious way.” said the author.
A self-confessed workaholic, Nair said that she ‘doesn’t know what to do with herself when she is not writing.’ “I need to write. It is a compulsion more than anything else. It takes me anywhere between one to six years to write a novel.” said the author. “I write longhand, and that becomes my first draft. I key the whole thing in, and that becomes my second draft. After that, I write one more draft.” she added. Nair is currently working on a third novel based on Inspector Gowda, that’s expected to come out next year.
She is perhaps one of those few female writers, who attract both male and female readers with the same magnetic force. Although Nair was initially pigeonholed as ‘feminist writer’ because of her intricately woven stories about beautifully written women characters, their unapologetic tendencies to feed their desires and their personal lives in books like Ladies Coupe (2001) and Mistress (2005), she has managed to transcend that definition by writing several stories with male narratives and creating memorable male characters like Gowda, thereby, proving her talent, and versatility. Not just characters and narratives, a big reason why Nair has managed to engage readers over the last fifteen years, is the elaborate settings of her novels and the variety of issues she tackles in them.
“I think as a full-time writer it is a little boring for me if I were to write the same kind of thing again and again. So, even when I am doing a series, say, for instance, the Gowda series, I find different angles to pitch my stories from.” said the author.
“For me, a story begins with something that bothers me. It’s an abstract thought, I don’t know why it is like that, but my books are the results of that thinking. I don’t have a solution at the end of the book, but I at least would have understood the problem or an issue better.” she added.
Despite writing fiction, the reason why Nair’s books carry the texture of realness and authenticity is her thoroughness with research. Before writing Chain of Custody, which deals with child trafficking, the author had done her research by accompanying child resue workers on their daily rounds for days, helped rescued kids fill up forms, and witness the entire rescue process firsthand. She also consulted several social workers, accumulating stories from different case files before she ventured to write the book.
“I think Mistress was the toughest book to write for me,” she confessed during the interview. “For starter, I was writing about an art form, I was not very familiar with, and I had to do a lot of research for that. Secondly, all the texts that I read were in Malayalam, so I had to brush up my Malayalam so that I could read. And, the story was so vast, that it was a challenge to be able to find a structure to contain it.”
She needs a metaphor to build her stories on, said the author. “In Mistress, if it was Kathakali, in Lessons In Forgetting (2015), it was the cyclone. For me, I feel that once I find the metaphor, the structure automatically falls into place,” she added.
In the last fifteen years of her career, Nair had created an impressive oeuvre of work as a poetess, essayist, novelist, children’s books writer, playwright, and screenplay writer. She has also won the Central Sahitya Academi Award, and Crossword Prize, among other literary honours. As the readers have loved and followed her works through the years, she too has gained an invaluable insight into the psyche of Indian readers.
“The diversity (of Indian readers) is so huge, so it is very difficult to generalise and say, ‘this is how the Indian readers are now’ because the Indian readers exist on many levels. In all fairness, for writers like me, our writings tend to be relevant, no matter how long we have been writing, because our readers exist at different levels.” said Nair.
“To a third-generation, urban feminist my books may not be that relevant, but to a person in a small town, or even women in metros — there are people who have all the physical appearances of being a very urban, but are very traditional and orthodox — my books are a way of reassessing their own lives,” she added.