The consequences can be deadly for Indian couples from different castes. For his latest Vish Puri mystery, Tarquin Hall reached out to the Love Commandos, an organization that helps on-the-run couples find sanctuary—but first he had to earn their trust.
Zola: You’ve written a story for the Sunday Times on private eyes in Delhi performing background checks into prospective brides and grooms for arranged marriages. Did that story help to influence this one?
Tarquin Hall: Not so much; this was a bit different. The matrimonial investigations come into play when marriages are being arranged. And arranged marriages are the general rule in India. Nowadays a detective often checks into the background of the bride or groom and their family members and makes sure there aren’t any skeletons in any closets. But the Love Commandos are involved with runaways – couples that hail from different castes or whose families follow different religions and so their relationships aren’t approved of.
TH: Absolutely. I first read about them in the newspapers. So I got hold of a number and gave them a call. They were quite suspicious at first. Meeting up was all very cloak and dagger. I had to go to a certain movie theatre in old Delhi one morning at a certain time and stand in front of the entrance. After I’d been there for about ten minutes I got another call and my contact questioned why I had brought a taxi and why it was waiting for me. I had to tell the driver to leave. Then a man appeared and led me through a labyrinth of streets and alleys. Finally I met the head of the charity in a small “safe house” – really dingy, messy room. There weren’t any on-the-run couples staying there at the time, but the Love Commandos arranged for me to meet some later. They had pretty harrowing stories. One couple was from different castes and the girl’s family had tried to kill the boy. The Love Commandos had helped them get married and start new lives. That’s what they do.
Zola: For the most part, your characters speak English with Hindi and Indian slang peppered throughout—so much so that there’s a glossary in the back of Love Commandos. Is it usual for Indians to speak this way among themselves in their own country?
TH: Yes often it’s the case. Linguistically India’s very complicated. OK re-phrase: India’s very complicated, period! You’ve got hundreds of languages, something like 1,200 in all. Although the official national language is Hindi, in practice English is often the language people from different ethnic groups use as a common one. That said, in Delhi the educated middle classes will often speak in English amongst themselves and sometimes their Hindi is not so good, even though officially it’s their native tongue. So they’ll mix the two languages – or rather they’ll throw in English terms and vocabulary when speaking Hindi and vice versa.
Zola: Some of Vish Puri’s attitudes change over the course of this novel. How has he developed throughout the series as a whole?
TH: Puri’s kind of pompous and he sort of thinks he knows everything, but he relies on his team and acknowledges that he’d be hard pressed to get the job done without them. So sometimes he has to change his position or an attitude. In Love Commandos, he’s very skeptical about so-called “love” marriages that take place without the consent of parents. He sees family as the binding force in society. But Facecream, his female undercover operative, who infiltrates a village in this book as a substitute schoolteacher sees him as very old fashioned in this regard. And in the end he comes to see her point of view.
Zola: The story deals with a 21st Century abuse of the traditionally “lower” castes, that of genetic exploitation. Is this taken from real life?
TH: What’s inspired from real life is the mapping of the human genome that’s been taking place here in India during the past few years. There have been various research projects and basically what they’ve found is that before the caste system came into force – so we’re talking at least 2,500 years ago or more – everyone was pretty much free to mix and inter-marry. Researchers have found genetic traces in the most unlikely DNA. But since then the caste system and religion have conspired to keep people apart, endogamous is the word. So you’ve had people from different castes existing side-by-side for centuries and never inter-marrying. It’s fascinating stuff – and that’s a big part of the book, or at least a big part of the backstory to the main plot.
Zola: As a British writer, why did you decide to break into novel writing through Vish Puri, the fussy, middle-aged Indian detective who’s so old-fashioned that he still goes around in a safari jacket?
TH: Write what you know – that’s the advice I’ve always been given. And I know that character, and I find that character fun and endearing. My wife has lots of uncles who are just like Vish Puri and I’ve spent a lot of time around them. So that’s what I went with. He’s a composite character. Ditto with his Mummy-ji. She’s very true to life. Indian women are feisty and capable. I should know – I’m married to one!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.