Conspiring together @ Crime Writers Festival

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The first edition of the Hindustan Times Crime Writers Festival kicked off in New Delhi recently. An initiative of the Crime Writer’s Forum of South Asia, in association with India Habitat Centre and Siyahi, powered by Investigation Discovery – A Hindi Investigation Challenge, it brought together some of the world’s best criminal minds, their weapons of choice being ink and paper. The festival was inaugurated by festival directors Namita Gokhale and Lady Kishwar Desai, festival advisors Ashwin Sanghi and Priti Paul and creative director Alka Pande and His Excellency Ambassador Eivind S Homme. It got started with a new word SMP….and if you’re wondering what SMP stands for, his fans will be quick to educate you – Surender Mohan Pathak! It might have been a foggy winter morning, but that did not deter his readers, some of whom showed up wearing T-shirts bearing his name and photograph, many others sporting bright yellow badges that proclaimed “SMPian”.

The fog was perfect as the first session began – Winter Murderland. Norwegian author, crime fiction expert and editor Nils Nordberg attempted to explain the phenomenon that was Nordic Noir. Following the most popular Hindi writer was a session on the most famous detective of all time – Sherlock Holmes. Later Anita Raghavan had the audience hanging on to her every word as she detailed how she, a financial journalist, tracked the rise and fall of corporate honcho Rajat Gupta. The ever combative Suhel Seth anchored the session, asking provocative questions about the dirty world of insider trading.

Switching from true life corporate crime to hilarious fictional antics of unlikely detectives, Zac O’Yeah, Tarquin Hall and Patrick Bryson showed the attendees the lighter side of crime fiction. All three, though not Indian, have chosen Indian detectives to tell their stories. Things got serious as Dipankar Gupta, French crime fiction expert Julien Vedrenne, Norwegian journalist and author Trude Teige and Lady Kishwar Desai debated the increasing levels of gratuitous violence, especially against women, in crime fiction.

French author Caryl Ferey’s travels have provided him with rich fodder for his crime novels. Set across the world – in Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa – they aren’t about jetsetting spies like James Bond, but heartwrenching violent sketches of the countries’ problems.

Pulp fiction had its moment in the sun when the spotlight turned to legendary Urdu writer Ibn-e-Safi. Mahmood Farooqui was in conversation with Khalid Jawed, who has one of the largest private collections of Ibn-e-Safi’s books. The day ended with yet another iconic detective. Byomkesh Bakshi was the subject of conversation as actors Rajit Kapur and Dhritiman Chaterji and director Dibakar Banerjee spoke of their connection to the character.

The second day began with popular Swedish writer Hakan Nesser talking to Jerry Pinto about his process, noting that “it is easier to kill someone in your family than to write a crime story”. Observing that it was so much more interesting when a good guy does something bad, as opposed to when a bad person commits a crime, he suggested that there are some situations when it is legitimate to kill.

From corporeal murders, the audience was treated to a discussion on a much murkier form – cyber crime. Here, there is no clear villain or hero. Amrita Chowdhury and Shibani Nayak reminded the audience that the cyber world does not exist in exclusion, but tangles its tentacles in real life. While cyber crimes are still a nascent phenomenon, political and financial scams aren’t. Lord Meghnad Desai and Sandeep Unnithan were in conversation with Mukul Deva as to why there were so few political thrillers coming out of a country where one can’t open a newspaper without finding news about a scam. The session was powered by HarperCollins Publishers India.

Zac O’Yeah, Mukul Deva and Aroon Raman were up next, discussing detective fiction in India. Zac said that almost every city in India could serve as a perfect setting for a crime novel, with its chaos and crowds. When asked by a young writer if you could realistically quit your job and become a full time writer in India, Zac and Mukul differed. While Mukul said that unless someone else was paying the bills it was a terrible idea to quit, Zac said that the lack of a steady income might be the driving force to make a person a hardworking writer.

Two heads are better than one, they say, and Ashwin Sanghi can vouch for that. The writer has teamed up with veteran writer James Patterson to create a crime novel set in India, and the book, Private India, is now on several bestseller lists. Speaking to Lady Kishwar Desai, he said that Patterson brought his years of experience to the table, while he provided the story, all the more credible because of his knowledge of India. As long as the roles are clearly defined, he said, collaboration is a joy. He added that the reason one collaborated with another writer was because you want more than one voice.

The last formal session of the day saw veteran journalists Hussain Zaidi and Sandeep Unnithan discussing the fascination that Mumbai holds for crime writers.

It was fitting that such an unusual festival came to an end with an unusual music performance curated by NH7.in. The day ended with Qrious Qrimes, a quiz competition, conceptualized by QuizCraft Global, which paired writers and readers to solve questions on crime fiction.

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