Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Story Behind the Story:
“The Kolkata Conundrum,” by Kalyan Lahiri

(Editor’s note: Welcome to the 67th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Our guest this time is Kalyan Lahiri, a resident of Kolkata, India, who—“well on his way to becoming a senior citizen”—has traded in a long career in the banking world for the life of a crime-fiction author. His first novel, The Kolkata Conundrum, was released earlier this year by Crime Wave Press. Below, Lahiri recounts his enthusiastic but oft-vexing entry into the fiction-writing field.)

When I stopped the daily 9-to-5 grind a couple of years ago, I happily started reading all of those thrillers and other novels that had been waiting in my to-be-read pile. Quite enjoyable as they were, still I found myself falling back again and again on works by Agatha Christie and Dick Francis, Ian Fleming and Lee Child. But there are no new Agatha Christies or Ian Flemings, and both for Dick Francis (now Felix Francis) and Lee Child one has to wait two years for a new two-day read.

So, one day it struck me: why not create my own stories? Make up the characters and let them take me wherever they want to. Construct a crime (or two) and let the characters get involved in it. Well, at times the characters I had recruited seemed to really take on a life of their own … but then they’d run away, doing whatever it was they wanted. I found myself suddenly saddled with a few thousand words of trash. After a while I realized that I had to be more severe, bend those fictional players to my will, and get them to do what I wanted them to. Following that, the hardest part was fashioning a believable plot.

I made my detective, Orko Deb, a young fellow, the son of a mechanic, just out of college and possessing no quirky traits, no baggage, no love interest. Just a straightforward, educated, athletic young man from an Indian village, eager to discover a big city—the West Bengal capital of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)—and looking forward to the business of life. He has to have some support system, which I’ve given him in the form of his uncle, an ex-army commando, who’s trying to run a commercial enterprise that provides private security guards—a company for which Orko Deb soon goes to work. I have also given Orko a lawyer friend for some basic legal help.

The decision to leave Orko free of any distinctive quirks, or some kind of traumatic past, was quite deliberate on my part. In the best tradition of Bengali detective fiction—and this is a genre that has its roots in the 19th century—the detective is a straight-laced, regular guy. Bengali detective fiction was really brought to the forefront by the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray. His protagonist, Prodosh C. Mitter (aka Feluda), originally created in 1965 as a figure in children’s literature, is the quintessential Bengali sleuth, although he has had to share the stage with another equally famous fictional crime solver, Byomkesh Bakshi, created in 1932 by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Both of those authors have passed away, however; Saradindu in 1970 and Ray in 1992. And no new fictional detective in Bengali literature has caught the reading public’s fancy in the same way they did.

Both Feluda and Byomkesh were based in Kolkata, though the former enjoyed adventures all over India and even in other countries. Byomkesh’s adventures were mostly in Kolkata. My man Orko Deb, too, has started his career in Kolkata. The city supplies the backdrop to The Kolkata Conundrum, and readers familiar with this place will recognize some of the well-known places and landmarks I mention. But the suburb where the main action in my story occurs is a fictitious one. It is, though, a generic sort of Kolkata suburb—there’s nothing at all remarkable about it. Similarly, the rural areas I describe are fairly classic-style Bengal villages, located close to railway stations, but with fictitious names.

Friends who have read my novel, or at least excerpts from it, often ask me whether the names I chose for the various cast members were based on real people. They were not. For the most part they are typical Bengali names that just popped into my head during the writing. As to the naming of my detective, though, I must confess there was some agonizing involved. I discarded a number of options before finally settling on Orko Deb. I had to be comfortable with my final choice. After all, if things go well, I’ll be employing his name, as well as the names of his close associates, in my fiction for some time to come.

(Right) Author Kalyan Lahiri

The most difficult part for me was the plotting of this first novel. After starting off rather lightheartedly and all aglow at having successfully created a plausible detective and placed him in a promising setting, I was stopped short by having to think up a worthy crime for Orko Deb to solve. It had to be a murder, of course, and furious walks in pursuit of inspiration eventually produced a solution to that quandary. But rather deep into my storytelling, it occurred to me that there should be another crime involved, a subplot. The central murder I had planned takes place rather late in my yarn—at the end of the third chapter, around page 20—so the subplot, which I decided would be a jewelry store robbery, had to be introduced earlier as a hook for the reader. This meant some of my first few thousand words had to be scrapped and the rest rewritten. Then came the matter of distributing the clues—who, what, when, where, how. All of the pertinent mysteries in both plot lines had to be raised and explored, and eventually, solved. This entailed a bit of back-and-forthing to get the whole thing just right. At one point I toyed with the idea of introducing a first-person narrator, like Hercule Poirot’s Captain Hastings or Sherlock Holmes’ Doctor Watson. Even my protagonist’s role models, the Bengali detectives, had other people narrating their adventures—Byomkesh his Ajit and Feluda his Topshe. In the end, though, I re-read a few Miss Marple and Jack Reacher stories, and decided to stick with my original third-person narrative and the sleuth’s straightforward point of view.

Finally, I conceived of no fewer than three different conclusions to The Kolkata Conundrum, discarding them all before settling on a fourth and then tying up loose ends.

The plot elements I’ve used did not come from any real-life experiences; they are completely imaginary. I have never met any mysterious glamorous woman in my life, such as the homicide victim in The Kolkata Conundrum. Nor do I have any first-hand knowledge of the workings of a private security agency or a police department. But the various banking details to be found in this book are obviously drawn from my own work experience. And the city of Kolkata has been my home all my life.

Once I had written “The End” on the last page, I was both eager to have the novel read and mightily apprehensive as to what the reaction might be. A couple of friends, who are avid readers, gave the work an initial critique. Their reactions were rather mixed. They were generally encouraging, yet thought I still needed to do some more work. They thought the plot was fine, the characters were well drawn, the situations plausible, and the narrative smoothly executed—but … So I sweated a bit and then combed through all of my pages with “an editor’s eye” (without really knowing what that entailed). The new draft I came up with was, I thought, not only tighter, but more consistent and polished.

Thereafter began the heart-breaking and soul-destroying process of sending my novel away to agents and publishers, only to collect rejection slips in return. One fine day, though, Tom Vater, a fellow author and the co-owner of Hong Kong-based Crime Wave Press, simply sent me a publishing contract. He wound up renaming my story The Kolkata Conundrum, gave it a beautifully evocative and mysterious cover, and launched it first into cyberspace and then print. Seeing my story out in the world at last gave me a new high, and encouraged me to begin the second Orko Deb adventure.

READ MORE:Short, Sharp Interview: Kalyan Lahiri,” by Paul D. Brazill.

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