Monday, January 01, 2007

Inspector Ghote's hard work and quaint words

I spent part of the long weekend with H.R.F. Keating's Inspector Ganesh Ghote: Dead on Time, the sixteenth of twenty-four books about the hard-pressed Bombay (Mumbai) police inspector, then the Merchant-Ivory movie adaptation of the first Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder. (Yeah, the movie has a director, too, and some stars, but Merchant-Ivory is the brand, and so it will be here.)

The novel and the movie are good comic-crime fun, mostly of a gentle variety, and Naseeruddin Shah does an excellent job as a harried Ghote in the latter. The movie stresses the competing demands on Ghote from his superiors, who pile case after case upon him, demanding that each be given top priority. In Dead on Time, the demands come from competing powerful individuals, each of whom puts pressure on Ghote to solve a murder in a manner that best suits his own interests. (It is one of the novel's little surprises that these powerful people, as willing as they are to throw their weight around, are not always wrong, on the one hand, and are sometimes as puzzled at Ghote, on the other.)

My exposure to Keating before this weekend consisted of a Ghote short story that is one of two works of crime fiction I've read in which, arguably, no crime is committed. The story is all Ghote: his frustrations, his patience, his relations with his family, his outward deference to social superiors even as he seethes at their overbearing stupidity. Dead on Time shares that emphasis; I can think of no other crime novel that depends so heavily on its protagonist and his interaction with his surroundings, human and physical. (There are beguiling passages of Ghote's frustration and then slow enchantment with the languid pace of life in a village where his investigation leads him.)

Readers will notice peculiarities in the dialogue that one Indian writer called Ghote's "broken-English patois." This "patois" consists principally of progressive verb forms where conventional English uses simple past or present ("I mean, a chap is not coming into a shop and finding one dead body on the floor without feelings of surprise, no?") and frequent use of only after the word it modifies ("That is perhaps nonsense only.") I can understand why such syntax might make an Indian reader wince. I wonder also if such speech patterns reflect the syntax of the Indian languages the characters would be speaking, the way a Russian speaking English might drop articles, or a Dutch speaker might use the perfect where a native English speaker would use the simple past. ("I wonder if he has done it," a detective asks in an early English version of one of Janwillem van de Wetering's novels -- jarring to English readers who would naturally expect the detective to ask instead "I wonder if he did it.")

To his credit, the writer, Ashok K. Banker, puts such linguistic manipulation in historical context: "This comic device, one of the most-admired qualities of the series abroad, has not aged well."

P.S. I quoted the above from a 2005 entry in Banker's blog, which in turn quotes a review Banker had written several years earlier of Keating's novel Breaking and Entering. Banker ended that earlier review with the commendable declaration that:

Bombay still awaits a truly worthy detective series - or several of them - to explore the city's unique beauty, charm and sleaze. Ghote was a worthy attempt, and certainly the only commercially successful one abroad. Now, what we need is a detective series that Indians will enjoy and buy in great numbers. Even if I damn well have to write it myself.

He does himself considerably less credit when he remarks in the newer blog entry that accompanies the review:

The only thing I don't stand by anymore is that last line. I have no intention of writing more crime fiction, regardless of how well it sells or gets reviewed. I simply don't have the kind of mind that can shape a story to fit genre formulas. What's more, shaping any story to fit any kind of structural expectation, in my honest opinion, is a crime in itself. Which is perhaps why I no longer read much crime fiction, or respect it very much.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger De Scribe said...

You may want to try Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. Not quite a crime fiction novel in the classical sense of the term, but an epic tale of a Mumbai underworld don.

January 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I just read a few comments on Sacred Games; it looks worth a try, especially in light of Mr. Banker's plea for a great Mumbai crime novel.

I notice that its protagonist is named Ganesh. That's the god of auspicious undertakings, but also the name of Keating's protagonist. It's a name that could work on several levels, I'd say.

One reviewer on Amazon's UK site said the novel was full of Bombay slang, which I find an attraction. I've read a number of Australian crime novels since I started this blog, and their slang increased my sense of adventure, maybe more so when I could not understand the slang.

January 03, 2007  

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