Vish Puri

(creator: Tarquin Hall)


Tarquin Hall
Vish(wash) Puri, affectionately nicknamed "Chubby" by his friends because of his "short, tubby frame", is, when we first meet him, 51 years old. A son of a local policeman who had been falsely accused of bribery, Puri had become the proud founder and managing director of Most Private Investigators Ltd based in Delhi where he lived with his wife whom he called Rumpi, and with whom he had had three daughters. Rumpi does her best to ensure that he keeps off the "fried foods and Indian deserts he so loved." He has his shirts and suits specially made for him in London and sets great store on his personal appearance that includes "his military moustache, first grown when he was a recruit in the army, waxed and curled at the ends."

He is a flamboyant Punjabi who had happily survived numerous attempts upon his life. As a practising Hindu he was "careful to appease the gods, visiting the temple at least once a week and observing all the major festivals." He considered himself "a spiritual man but .... not superstitious", but also laid great importance on the powers of logic and deduction. He is nothing if not supremely self-confident: "Vish Puri never fails". He likened himself to "a spider at the centre of a web with silky tendrils branching out all around him," so that through his agents he could know everything that was going on. He is well-fitted to face up to the swindlers, cheats and murderers that he fears are taking over Indian society.

Tarquin Hall (1969 - ) is a writer and journalist who was born in London to an English father and American mother. He spent much of his adult life travelling extensively in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the USA. He is married to the Indian-born Punjabi BBC reporter and presenter Anu Anand. They have a young son and daughter and live in Delhi. He is the author of seven books including The Case of the Missing Servant (reviewed below) which is the first of a series of books featuring Vish Puri.

The Case of the Missing Servant (2009)
The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Vish Puri, India's Most Private I
nvestigator, whose main work comes from screening prospective marriage partners, a job once the preserve of aunties and family priests. But when an honest public litigator is accused of murdering his maidservant, it takes all of Puri's resources to investigate. How will he trace the fate of the girl, known only as Mary, in a population of more than one billion?

He is also concerned about who is taking pot shots at him and his prize chilli plants. And why is his widowed 'Mummy-ji' attempting to play sleuth when everyone knows Mummies are not detectives? Of course, that is not how she sees it: "I'll be staying for some days. It's my duty to remain, to make sure you are all right, na? I'm your Mummie after all." She was one of those redoubtable Punjabi women who "were not to be tangled with" so there is no way he can stop her embarking on her own stake out. "If you ask me," his wife tells him, I think Mummy is a natural detective. If you weren't being so stubborn and proud, you might give her a chance. I'm sure she could be very helpful to you. It doesn't sound like you've got any ideas of your own."

With his team of undercover operatives - Tubelight, Flush and Facecream - Puri ingeniously combines modern techniques with principles of detection established in India more than two thousand years ago - long before 'that Johnny-come-lately' Sherlock Holmes appeared on the scene. His use of nicknames, not only for his operatives but even for his wife, is a Punjabi tradition that has the extra advantage of concealing their real identities.

He recognises that, "Nowadays, a man can fly from one end of the planet to another in a few hours, only. Achievements in science are at a maximum. But still, there is more mischief going on than ever before, especially in overpopulated cities like Delhi." He believed "this was because the world was still passing through Kali Yuga, the age of Kali, a time of debauchery and moral breakdown." I

It makes an interesting and amusing story: "Was Mary having relations with other staff members?" he asks her employer.
"You know these Christian types, Mr Puri. Always putting it about," she replies.

The author's own first-hand knowledge of Delhi and of Punjabi life (he admits to learning a lot from his wife's Punjabi family) enable him to produce a really convincing portrayal of middle-class Indian life in Delhi. Even the language, I'm told, is true to life: "Sir, your good name please?", the detective asked his prospective client.
"Ajay Kasliwal," he answered, standing up and offering his hand. "Vish Puri, is it? Well, I'm certainly glad to meet you. Bunty Bannerjee put me on to you. Said you were to be found here most evenings. He sends his best wishes by the way."
"Most kind of you," replied the detective. "How is the old devil? It's been such a very long time!"

Puri himself is an entertaining character, whether he is demonstrating his deductive skills ("As to your hometown, traces of Rajasthani sand are on your shoes") or fighting his way through the bureaucracy by putting on a bullying act that earns an instant respect. "No delay!" he bawled, "thoroughly enjoying himself. Oh how he loved watching bureaucratic types squirm!" But he is all too aware that corruption in the Indian legal system is such that "it is almost impossible to remain honest", and of the desperate deprivation all around him.

There is a lot of detection but little exciting action, apart from a dramatic court scene towards the end of the book, after which Puri "dictated all the details of his investigation to his personal secretary." This was helpful as trials could drag on for several years, even decades, but there was also the point that he "was planning to leave all his files to the National Archive because he was certain future generations of detectives would want to study his methods and achievements." He also hoped that "some day a writer would come along who would want to pen his biography."


The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (2011)
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing sta
rts early one morning on the lawns of a grand boulevard in central Delhi where a group of professionals are attending their therapeutic Laughing Club when a 20-foot high apparition of the Goddess Kali apppears, and strikes one of their number dead. He is (or was) the celebrated sceptic and rationalist Dr Suresh Jha. He had been one of Vish Puri's clients years ago, and the idea that Puri "couldn't resist getting involved in such a tantalising murder was preposterous. There was as much chance of him going without his lunch." And, although he himself is a committed Hindu (he "regarded a belief in the divine as essential. Without it, in his view, society would disintegrate"), he Is convinced that there must be a rational explanation of the crime and is determined to track it down.

The story grabs attention right from the start, although as it slowly progresses, it is the Indian background, described with quiet humour throughout, rather than many dramatic developments in the plot that make it so appealing. So we get a description of how blind Zahir, who owned a tiny general store, restocked from his storage space above Puri's office by lowering goods on a string past his window. "Beyond cutting the string with a pair of scissors, there was little to be done. Besides, Puri was particularly partial to some of the products stocked by kindly Zahir - like those nice coconut biscuits, for example. And sometimes, when they appeared in his window, he called them in and settled his bill later. It was almost uncanny the way packets of coconut biscuits often appeared around the same time every afternoon."

The author obviously loves Delhi despite all the corruption and need for bribery even to get a child into the school you want, but Vish Puri is quite prepared to use counterfeit money (which he never actually pays over) to help a client secure a place. As he explains, "In India the line between what is legal and what is not is often somewhat of a fuzz." Puri knows all about the work of lizers (fixers) who "will arrange anything for the right fee. Get your son a job in the government ministry, lobby the right MLA to get emission certificates passed on your factory. Mr Rupinder Khullar is particularly well-connected politically. You might say he's got a finger in every samosa."

At home, and to his friends, Vish Puri is always known as Chubby, and he affectionately calls his wife Rumpi. Their relationship is convincingly described: when their third grandchild is expected in eight weeks, Chubby "who kept a close watch on everything that transpired inside his house, sometimes even bugging the servants, had also discovered a large stash of imported, disposable nappies hidden away in the servant quarters. This had prompted him to object to the exorbitant sums being spent: "No need for all these imported products. Made in India is just as good if not better. We were all fitted with cloth nappies and our bottoms never suffered."
At that his wife scowled, telling him that he was the one who needed nappies.
"Why exactly, my dear?" an incensed, bemused Puri had asked.
"Because of so much of verbal diarrhoea!" she snapped.
The next day, the detective had opened his lunch tiffin to find it packed with celery sticks. After that plain bean sprouts. And so on ...
So he had had to buy her "a new mixie
(mixer) and "there had been a marked improvement in the quality of Puri's lunches after that." Then there is his relationship with his irrepressible and shrewd old mother who, much against his wishes, insists on embarking on detective work of her own. They are quite a family.

The Indian dialogue sounds convincing too as when Puri asks, "Actually, sir, one last question is there."
"Last one?"
"Undoubtably, sir." Puri paused. "Just I wanted to ask, it was your first time at this Laughing Club?"
"That's right."
"How you came to join exactly?"

The author is very conscious of a much less appealing side of Delhi life: "The view through the scratched, convex windshield was depressingly familiar: a sooty ghetto of ramshackle brick houses smothered in cow dung patties. Plastic sheeting, chunks of concrete, and twisted scrap metal were draped over roofs. Canvas tents were pitched amidst heaps of garbage where filthy, half clad children defecated and played .... Like any jungle, it was infested with animals. Mangy mutts ran snarling alongside the auto rickshaw; chickens and ducks clucked and squawked as they scurried out of the way of the oncoming vehicle, monkeys hanging from electrical cables illegally tapping the power grid screeched overhead at the intruders on their territory." Puri himself is always very aware of the contrast between "the India of beggars and farmer suicides and the one of selling frothy Italian coffee .... As he slipped back and forth between them, he often found himself pondering the ancient Indian axiom that this world is but maya, an illusion, a collective dream."

It is in the slums that Puri's investigations lead him to visit the magician Akbar the Great, hoping that he will be able to explain how "the so-called Kali apparition" was achieved, but he is told, "How it was done is irrelevant. Perhaps it was real jadoo! Perhaps it was only a trick. Who knows? It's what people believe that is the important thing."
"What do you mean by real magic ?"
"Genuine miracles performed by those with genuine supernatural powers of course."
"You believe such things are possible?"
"The Holy Koran is full of examples. So are the Bible and Ramayana. Water can be turned into wine. Many things happen in this life that cannot be explained."

He then went on to visit another performing magician, Manish the Magnificent, where a waiter mistook him for a stand-up comic and thought his pretentious visiting card ("Vish Puri, managing director, chief officer, and winner of six national awards, confidentiality is our watchword") quite hilarious and told him, "I can't wait to see your act." The disgusted Puri, we are told, "hated these new 'trendy' haunts. Like the malls, they were indicative of a crass materialism and hedonism undermining the family values that underpinned Indian society." But it's certainly fun to read about them.

Puri himself remains a thoroughly entertaining character, as when he adopts one of his unlikely disguises: a "stick-on henna-dyed moustache, eyebrows, and a wig – all a lurid orange red – and a hawkish nose". He proudly explains, "Disguises have always been my speciality. Once I take on a role, Vish Puri is put aside and I become the character. Sometimes I don't even recognise myself. So engrossed I become." No wonder two of his agents "exchanged a playful glance".

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (2012)
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken tells how the elderly father of a top Pakistani cricketer playing in the multi-million-dollar Indian Premier League dramatically dies during a post-match dinner. His butter chicken had been poisoned. To solve the case, Puri must follow an illegal betting trail that leads deep into Pakistan, the country in which many members of his family were massacred during the 1947 partition of India. To his surprise, he finds that it was "a country populated by ordinary people no different from ordinary Indians. They were labouring under many of the same difficult conditions, in fact. And no doubt the vast majority wanted nothing more than to live in peace."

The last piece of the puzzle, however, turns up closer to home when Puri learns of the one person who can identify the killer. Unfortunately it is the one woman in the world with whom he has sworn never to work: his Mummy-ji. He keeps warning her, "Mummy-ji, how many times I've told you: detective work is for professionals, not mummies," but she too is a shrewd investigator with a more interesting (if not entirely convincing) past than he could ever have guessed, although her activities, described in some detail, are less entertaining than his. Meanwhile, he also solves the case of the missing thirteen-foot moustache, half of which had disappeared "from right under his (the proud owner's) nose, no less."

It is another thoroughly amusing if comparatively unexciting plot with an expertly drawn background which is thoroughly convincing. I particularly enjoyed the way in which Puri, aged 52 now, fixed his bathroom scales so that they never exceeded 90 kg! You can feel with him, when he complains about "impatient, pushy clients. They had no appreciation for the special talents required for detective work. Worst were the ones who read that bloody Agatha Christie. They imagined that because some old memsahib in an Angrezi (English) village with a population of a dozen - mostly Christian priests and old duffers and the like - could solve a murder over a cup of Earl Grey, the same could be done in India. India with its 1,600-plus languages; myriad ancient religions; castes, sub-castes and tribes; five-and-a-half-thousand-year-old culture – not to mention a billion-plus population and cities expanding before your very eyes."

His large team of operatives boast an impressive selection of gadgets, and he himself, when disguised as Mahinder C Pujji, has a mobile phone "that doubled as a voice-activated recorder. The gold medallion he was wearing as part of his disguise contained a pinhole TV camera and transmitter. And there was a location device secreted in the heel of his fake alligator boots." His operative, Flush, went one better and had a "case that contained Gordon (the Gecko) .... He was three inches long, remote-controlled (range: 50 feet) and equipped with night vision, a pinhole camera and a transmitter housed in his tail. The most ingenious thing about Gordon, however, was the suction system Flush had designed for his little feet. This allowed him to crawl up walls and ceilings and hang around – literally – pretending to be hunting insects. The fact that he was green with beady black eyes and a realistic little tongue meant that no one took much notice of him. Just like a real gecko. "

It is all good fun, and much enlivened by the author's quiet sense of humour as when he describes how the local police were "dispersing the crowd with the text and sensitivity for which the Delhi police are famed." But even when Puri gets abducted, held prisoner and shot at, you don't have to take it too seriously.



The author has his own website and there is an interview with him on the Simon & Schuster site, as well a video of him talking about The Case of the Missing Servant on youtube.



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The Case of the Missing Servant cover
The cover looks distinctly flamboyant, rather like the central character in fact.
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