Vaseem Khan is the author of the bestselling Baby Ganesh Detective Agency novels set in modern India, featuring Indian detective Ashwin Chopra and his baby elephant sidekick. The first book in the series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a Times bestseller and a Waterstones Paperback of the Year. The second, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, won the Shamus Award in the US. In 2018 he was awarded the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Award for Literature. He was born in London, but spent a decade working in India.
Vaseem’s latest book is Bad Day at the Vulture Club, about the murder of a wealthy Parsee in Mumbai’s notorious Towers of Silence where the Parsee dead are left to be eaten by vultures.
1. Who were your literary heroes and influences as you were growing up?
I grew up on a diet of science fiction so my first inspirations were the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Greg Bear. I later fell in love with literary fiction, where writers like Salman Rushdie and John Irving inspire me – Midnight’s Children is my favourite novel.
I got hooked on crime fiction in my late twenties. America’s Michael Connelly is my favourite – his L. A. based detective Harry Bosch is my kind of crime fighter – grim, gritty and utterly implacable. My own series is compared by the national newspapers to Alexander McCall-Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series and I freely admit that he has been an inspiration though, personally, I think my books are slightly grittier in tone.
2. Where did your inspiration for Inspector Chopra and Ganesha come from?
You could say this series was born on my first day in India when I went there in 1997, aged 23, to work. I vividly remember walking out from Bombay airport, into a wall of sizzling heat. The first thing I saw was a number of lepers and beggars milling about the taxi rank! At the first traffic junction we stopped at there was a thumping on the window. I turned to see a tall well-built gentleman in a sari. My first eunuch. I turned back to the road and there, lumbering through the incredible chaos of Mumbai traffic, was an enormous grey Indian elephant with a mahout on its back.
This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually became a part of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, the first novel in my series, which I wrote when I returned to England ten years later. My aim with these books is to take readers on a journey to modern India, an incredible place being changed by globalisation but still suffering from many legacy problems such as vast slums and caste prejudice. As well as offering readers what I hope are intriguing mysteries, I want to put you on the streets of Mumbai and show you what it looks like, feels like, sounds like, and even smells like to be there!
As for Chopra and Ganesha… Inspector Chopra is a rigid and honest man who cares deeply about justice in a country where, if you have wealth and influence, you can get away with the worst crimes. He is forced to retire from the police service though he is only in his late forties. At the same time he inherits a one-year-old elephant that he must take in and look after. A strange bond develops between the pair, as Chopra sets up his detective agency and goes on to solve various murders and other crimes.
The elephant, Ganesha, is a symbol of India – it doesn’t talk or fly or solve the mysteries! It is more of a companion for Chopra as he navigates his way through a teeming and changing India.
3. Your latest book is Bad day at the Vulture Club. Can you give us a flavour of what to expect from it?
Bad Day at the Vulture Club is the fifth full-length Chopra novel. In this book Inspector Chopra is asked to investigate the murder of a wealthy Parsee gentleman whose body is found in Mumbai’s notorious Towers of Silence. These are stone structures located in the middle of the city where the Parsee community lay out their dead to be eaten by vultures. The Parsees are a very wealthy and influential community within Mumbai’s cosmopolitan mix; they helped establish Bombay in the 1800s and worked closely with the British, generating great wealth.
I use the novel to explore this fascinating sub-group within India’s cultural melting pot, as well as giving Chopra another challenging murder to solve.
4. You had to work long and hard for your success. How do you look back on that time now, having broken through to publish your work and become a bestseller?
I wrote my first novel aged 17 – it was rejected (rightly so – it was rubbish!). Over the next 23 years I wrote six more novels, all rejected. And then I got a multi-book deal for the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series… and the rest is history.
The main lesson I have learned is that authors must spend thousands of hours developing their skills so that they can actually write to a standard that agents and editors are even willing to consider publishing. This takes time, dedication and daily effort. So don’t get disheartened by rejection. It’s all part of the journey.
What I love about my writing life now is that I can do lots of events around the country, big and small, and speak to readers. Maybe one day I’ll visit Suffolk Libraries!
5. If you were offered the choice of a major literary prize or the chance to bat with Sachin Tendulkar, which would you choose?
Unless it’s the Booker Prize, it would have to be batting with Sachin. Most literary prizes are a nice ego boost but don’t actually add a great deal to an author’s book sales (the Booker Prize does!).
I’ve won a number of prestigious awards, including the Shamus Award in America for crime fiction, and the Eastern Eye Award for Literature in the UK. I enjoyed dressing up and receiving the latter of these in front of a glamorous audience, thanking the whole world and his wife for my success, but, ultimately, sharing a cricket pitch with one of the greatest cricketers of all time would trump that! (The eagle-eyed reader will spot that in each book in my series I mention Sachin Tendulkar, once, just in passing.)
6. Do you have a message for your Suffolk library readers?
Libraries are under threat. They need our support. Two years ago, I was approached by my local library in East London and asked to set up a weekly book group. It was hard to find the time, but I am so glad that I did. I have learned so much about how hard libraries and librarians have to work to keep things going.
Since then I have tried to support libraries as much as I can. I have delivered talks in libraries around the country, from Perton to Rainham, in buildings as beautiful as Glasgow’s Mitchell library and far less grandiose venues, including half a dozen prison libraries. In return I have received the friendship of librarians around the country – and they have helped publicise my books and put them into the hands of their readers. A win-win, I’d say!
When I was growing up, we had no money to buy books. My local library gave me the choice of books to read so that today I can fulfil my childhood dream of being an author. So my message is… get behind your local library and make sure everyone knows how valuable it is to your community.
7. Can you tell us one thing your readers may not know about you?
I can’t stand the taste of ginger. It goes in a lot of Indian food but if I can actually taste it, I won’t eat the dish (this is why Inspector Chopra also hates the taste of ginger!).