Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

How Indian characters have made their mark on international fiction

From police inspectors to businessmen to cooks, Indians overseas are increasingly figuring in a range of tales by non-Indian writers.
Characters of Indian descent have featured in western books including Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890).
Characters of Indian descent have featured in western books including Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890).

Politicians, business magnates, sports stars – the Indian diaspora has done well for itself in its new homes around the world and, on a literary basis, crossed another test of acceptance with their depiction in fiction as regular, non-stereotypical characters. From police inspectors to businessmen to cooks, Indians overseas are increasingly figuring in a range of tales by non-Indian writers.

Among the first Indian characters to feature in fiction was in early 20th century in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes series. The Andamanese islander Tonga appears in the detective’s second outing The Sign of Four (1890), but the second character is more substantial.

Daulat Ras is one of the three scholarship aspirants suspected of acting unfairly in The Adventure of the Three Students (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1904). Described by his tutor as “a quiet, inscrutable fellow, as most of those Indians are”, Watson assesses him as “a silent, little, hook-nosed fellow, who eyed us askance” when they meet, but Holmes is more discerning.

Recent characters include Mr Patel, who runs a grocery store in Lochdubh village in the Scottish highlands. He is a frequently appearing character in the prolific British writer M C Beaton’s Sergeant Hamish MacBeth series of whodunits – from Death of a Gossip (1985) to Death of a Liar (2015).

Patel debuts in Death of a Cad (1987), the second book in the series. As Sergeant Hamish visits Patel’s shop-cum-house, it is Mrs Patel – wearing a bright red sari – whom he encounters first.

“Och, Mr Macbeth,” she says impatiently, “Whit d’ye want at this time o’night?”

The husband, a “small, brown man with liquid brown eyes and a beak of a nose”, is more welcoming. “Evening, Mr Macbeth,” he says. “Will ye be havin’ a wee dram?”

It doesn’t get more integrated than that.

Then there is Lieutenant Raghavan of the New York Police Department in Matt Beynon Rees’s The Fourth Assassin (2010), the last instalment of the Omar Yussef quartet. She is in charge of the investigation when a Palestinian schoolteacher-cum-investigator finds a headless body in his son’s apartment during a visit to New York.

The “short, dark-skinned woman with straight black hair spraying across her narrow shoulders”, with a “hard-pitched and sharp” voice is a well-written character, with quite the sardonic tongue. When her Arab colleague hesitates in reading a love letter seized as evidence, she says: “Come on, bashful. Translate.” And when he still demurs, she says: “Okay, fine, we’ll go back to the precinct house and dim the lights, and you’ll read me Romantic Rania’s letter over a nice bubbly flute of Chateau Budweiser.”

Colin Coterill’s Dr Siri series, set in Laos of the 1970s, has a pair of Indians living in Vientiane. The extremely humble Bhikhu is the cook at the Happy Dine Restaurant and his estranged son, Jogendranath or Crazy Rajid as he is known, wanders around stark naked and speechless.

But his father reveals the traumatic basis for his condition – the deaths of their family by drowning in a shipwreck on their way to South East Asia. They debut in the second book in the series – Thirty Three Teeth (2005) and occasionally appear in others. Rajid plays a stellar role in the ninth, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (2013), where he saves the life of Siri’s nurse and her child from a vengeance-seeking Frenchman.

An endearing character is Nairobi businessman Mr Malik in Nicholas Drayson’s A Guide to the Birds of East Africa (2008), an ingenious but warm-hearted love story-cum-zoological caper. Malik, the short, slightly overweight, balding middle-aged widower develops a crush on his Tuesday morning bird-walk leader and intends to invite her to a ball, but a rival with the same target surfaces. To resolve the issue, club members – A B Gopez, Mr Patel and lawyer Tiger Singh – devise a unique wager that ensures plenty of misadventures for both. Malik returns in A Guide to Beasts of East Africa (2012).

Moving south of the African continent, we have Superintendent David Patel of the Johannesburg Central Police, the detective partner and (unaware love interest) of private investigator Jade de Jong, the daughter of his old police superior. Patel appears in three book in the series by Jassy Mackenzie – Random Violence (2010), Stolen Lives (2011) and The Fallen (2012).

Updated: June 6, 2015 04:00 AM

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