Mumbai – the perfect setting for a crime series featuring a baby elephant
I first went to India aged 23 to work with a hotel group based in Mumbai. You could say that my debut novel The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was born on my first day there. The book follows Mumbai police inspector Ashwin Chopra who is forced into early retirement but cannot let go of the final case of his career – the death of a poor local boy – whilst simultaneously faced with the outlandish dilemma of taking in a baby elephant named Ganesha sent to him by his enigmatic uncle.
I remember walking out from Bombay airport into a wall of heat, and the first thing I saw was a group of lepers and beggars milling around the taxi rank. At the first traffic junction we stopped at there was a thumping on the window. I turned to see a very large man in a sari – my first eunuch. I turned back to the road and there, lumbering through the traffic, was an enormous grey Indian elephant! This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually became a part of the novel I wrote when I returned to England ten years later.
But why Mumbai? readers ask me.
For me Mumbai is one of the world’s great cities, colourful, diverse, loud, exuberant, full of absurd contradictions, yet equally full of warmth and compassion. Above all it is a place of people – twenty million of them! – whose generosity of spirit cannot be captured by mere words. This abundance of humanity is why India is perfect for a crime series. Because crime fiction is about the human condition and nowhere in the world is the sheer range of humanity so magnificently expressed as on the subcontinent. The physical landscape of Mumbai is also a character in its own right in my series. The city is constantly evolving – with new multiplexes and malls and skyscrapers sitting side by side (sometimes uneasily) with slums, and beautiful old buildings showcasing the different eras of India’s past – from ancient Hindu temples, to Mughal architecture, to the colonial edifices built by the British.
In its oldest incarnation Mumbai was once a series of seven islands occupied for millennia by Koli fisherman, before the Portuguese established a trading centre there in 1534 and calling it Bom Bahia or ‘Good Bay’ from whence the name Bombay is derived. A century later they gifted the territory to King Charles II of England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. Charles promptly leased the islands to the East India Company who transformed them into a city, drawing in settlers and building expansively. By the end of the 1700s Bombay was the ‘Gateway to India’. The city grew at a ferocious pace so that today millions live cheek-to-jowl within its ever-expanding borders. In 1995 Bombay was rechristened Mumbai, after Mumbadevi, the stone goddess of the original Koli fishermen.
With the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series I aim to take readers on a journey to the heart of modern India. The second book in the series, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, is out soon and is about the theft of the legendary Koh-i-Noor diamond, first mined in India, now a part of the British Crown Jewels which, in my story, are being exhibited in Mumbai, where a daring heist takes place. Of course, Chopra and little Ganesha are soon called in to recover the great diamond!
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