Towering over Mumbai is the most expensive private residence in the world. The 27-storey, $2 billion Antilia skyscraper is home to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani and his family. Like something out of a James Bond movie, the 400,000-square-foot building includes a ballroom, three helipads, nine elevators, and a 50-seat cinema, plus six floors dedicated solely to car storage. It reportedly takes 600 employees to keep it running.
However, under it, in the literal sense of the word, in some cases, are the largest slums in the world.
In fact, more than half of the population of Mumbai, ne Bombay, lives in shanty towns that in many cases lack access to clean water, electricity and public transportation.
And this, according to the famous crime writer Vasim Khan, is the striking contradiction in the heart of India, which can be traced back to the days of the Raj.
The London-born author and director of university research, who is chair of programming at this year’s highly anticipated 20th anniversary Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, admits: “It’s a contentious subject because almost everything the British did in India was to smooth the rails for their colonial project.
They built railroads to move men and materials across the country, taught language so that the Indian civil service could run more smoothly, and introduced the legal system to mirror their own.
“For Indians, none of these things justified colonialism, but some feel that they later made it easier for India to become a modern, semi-Western, globalized economy.”
Having enjoyed an economic boom from the outsourcing revolution — hosting call centers and other back-office jobs, and benefiting in part from the spread of the English language — India now has a thriving middle class.
Mumbai, the de facto financial center of the country, is one of the richest cities in the world.
Like Antilia, however, Shadow Empire towers over Vaseem’s sweet and slick Bombay-set novels, featuring India’s first female detective Persis Wadia and Dead Police criminologist Archie Blackfinch.
His accounts of the fallout from the August 1947 partition of the continent into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India—which cost more than a million lives due to inter-communal violence—became something of a speciality.
“I have this line that I use: ‘Not every Brit who went to India was a sinner, and not every Indian was a saint,’” Fasim continues. “What that means to me is that there were a lot of Brits who went there to earn a crust. They weren’t all Clive India.
“A lot of ordinary people qualified and were told there was a job in the Indian Civil Service. They did what a lot of ordinary people do to this day – they traveled across borders to earn a decent wage.”
His award-winning series, beginning with Midnight At Malabar House, entertainingly explore a country finding its way in ...-colonial era.
The writer, whose long journey to publishing began, aged 17, with the Discworld-inspired tribute to the late Terry Pratchett, feels a special affinity for the period.
Vasim Khan with Mick Heron
His father was born in Punjab and forced, as a boy, to flee from India to Pakistan as partition tore the subcontinent apart. His family was part of ...-partition migration, and fortunately he missed out on most of the violence. But there were stories of friends and family losing everything, even to death,” says Vassim.
“It was a nightmare for time. It was so dark, so much blood was shed, that shadow has lain for 76 years. One million Indians were killed but they were killed by other Indians: Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fighting each other.”
“The British failed Partition – they didn’t supervise it, they did it too quickly, and the people involved, Lord Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe [whose line splitting the new countries was far too arbitrary] – They were guilty in this sense. But the actual killing was by the Indians.
“This is what I mean when I say that not every Indian was a saint in the story of the end of the Raj and the beginning of India’s independence.”
After he married and moved to England, Vaseem’s father worked as an industrial baker in East London and raised Vaseem and his four siblings.
After graduating from university, the author, now 49, spent a decade living and working in India, where he met and married his Indian wife, Nirupama.
“I went to Mumbai at the age of 23. The country I saw, this modern India, was amazing, having gone from a pre-industrial agrarian economy to the near-global superpower we think of today,” he explains.
After spending ten years there and back in the UK, I wanted to write about modern India which I did with my first books – the Baby Ganesh Agency series.
Then I began to think about where this country came from, and for me, those roots came from when the British left.
“That particular period in India, only a few years after the assassinations of Independence and Gandhi and the horrors of partition, is not well explored in fiction and certainly not in crime fiction.”
His subsequent Malabar House series introduced Detective Percy and Bombay’s smallest police station—home to the “misfits and outcasts” of the Indian police force, expendable enough to handle “hot potato” cases that no one wants.
The books drew complimentary comparisons to Mick Herron’s spy thriller Slough House, which is currently starring Gary Oldman in an Apple TV+ adaptation. “Think Mick Heron in Bombay,” one critic promised.
Just published in paperback, the third book is The missing man from Bombay.
Persis and Archie investigate the murder of a white man who was found frozen in the Himalayan foothills near Dehradun.
“The idea came from the story that the first person who may have summited Everest was not Edmund Hillary but George Mallory, who died in 1924,” Fasim explains.
“His body was found in 1999 and no one knows if he was on the way up and died before he reached the peak, or if he had successfully summited and was coming down.”
Muslim refugee camp victims of religious riots in India
A fourth novel Death of the Lesser God, focusing on the British who remained after independence, would follow in August. Meanwhile, Vaseem is preparing for the world famous Theakston Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate as the first Anglo-Asian Programming Chair. Held July 20-23 at the Old Swan Hotel in North Yorkshire, where Agatha Christie reappears after going missing for 11 days in 1926, the festival holds a special significance.
“It’s an amazing honor but also a sign of how much the industry has certainly changed in the nearly ten years since I was first published,” says Vaseem.
“When I came into the industry you could count how many non-white crime writers had any influence on one hand. For me in particular Harrogate resonates because when I was young our favorite TV show as a British Asian family was Agatha Christie’s Poirot starring David Suchet.
“Even my father, whose English was not very good, would sit back and enjoy this show. Neither of us could have dreamed decades later that I would preside over a festival so closely associated with the Queen of Crime.”
Lee Child, the creator of Jack Reacher, and his brother Andrew were among an impressive group, including Lisa Jewell, Ruth Ware, Ann Cleeves, Jeffery Deaver, Lucy Worsley, SA Cosby, and Chris Hammer.
the daily expression is media partner for this year’s prestigious Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel, for which Vaseem’s historical thrillers were previously shortlisted.
An avid cricketer, who plays for Redbridge CC and The Author’s XI, an amateur club founded in 1891 by, among others, Sir PG Wodehouse, Sir JM Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, revived as recently as 2012, he uses his imagination To correct historical inaccuracies.
“I don’t really buy into the idea of demolishing statues,” he smiles. I’d rather eradicate people’s ignorance, and I don’t think you can do that if you start erasing history.
“You can only do that if you talk about history, good or bad.
For example, in Midnight at Malabar House, I’m talking about the Indians who invented the fingerprint classification system – Aziz-ul-Haq and Hem Chandra Bose. Credit goes to their supervisor.
Equally, in The missing man from Bombay, I’m talking about George Everest who worked in India as a surveyor but it has nothing to do with determining that Everest was the highest mountain on Earth. This was Indian mathematician Radnath Sikdar, but the Royal Society wanted to honor Everest for his lifetime of work.”
Persis itself came about as a way to avoid the usual hard-drinking detectives who populate so many crime stories. “I’m a big fan of the renegade cop who gets three times divorced and goes around disobeying everyone and trying to get the job done,” Fasim smiles.
In a way, Barsis is the same. Sometimes she gnaws at the minutiae and is quite blunt.
“But I needed an interesting hero in an age when India was a very patriarchal society and its police were notoriously insular, a bit corrupt, and definitely misogynistic.
“Many of the things I write about have parallels in the modern world.
“We still have discussions about misogyny in the police force – in Britain too, as we saw with Louise Casey’s bombshell reporting at the Met this week.”
Vaseem has yet to meet life’s first Indian policewoman, Kiran Bedi, 73, but he has benefited from the experiences of another former Indian cop, Jyoti Belur, a fellow in the Department of Security and Criminology at University College London.
“She obviously worked in modern India but, like Bersis, she wore khakis and a gun and many of the problems she encountered were the same.”
He also uses Persis and Archie as a way to examine his own heritage and the new relationship between the two countries: “Persis is an Indian in conflict and her detective partner Archie Blackfinch is an Englishman.
“There’s something metaphorical about their relationship, and it’s not always smooth sailing. History always asks us to take sides, but as writers we have to try to strike a balance.”
“I can be equally tough on the British and the Indians. I feel like I can straddle the two cultures.”
Was he nice to the Brits in the books, I wonder? “I get interviewed regularly in India and no one suggested it, I think in part that every one of my books begins with a white person being murdered!” He laughs.
“I went to India in 1997 with my boss in England, Terry Brewer, a lovely gentleman from Kent with snowy white hair. After a few months in India he joked, ‘Fez, something is wrong, everyone is nice to me. Don’t they know what my ancestors did here?
“But as India is advancing at its full potential into the future, they take little interest in the horrors of that period. They have a great fondness for the English people who come to India and interact with them.”
- Bombay’s missing man By Vaseem Khan (Hodder, £8.99) Available now. visiting Expressbookshop.com Or call 020 3176 3832. Free P&P in the UK on orders over £20. Theakston Old Peculier Criminal Writing Festival takes place from 20-23 July. Tickets will be sold from May 2. Visit Harrogateinternationalfestivals.com for more information