One February morning, I called up Mrs. Jaya Lahiri-Mukherjee – the author of a crime thriller ‘Out Flew the Web’ published by Vishwakarma Publications. After going through the bio, I had created the image of a grim, and quiet middle aged woman. Accordingly, I had braced myself for a dour conversation, the usual questions yielding the usual answers, the routine ‘going-through-the-motions’. However, I was in for a surprise. The voice at the other end was warm and engaging, hinting at a smile. What followed were riveting conversations on the phone and a prompt exchange of mails in the following days. I quizzed her on her choice of genre, the setting of her novel, her writing style and much more. Read on to find out more.
1. What drove a scientist to write a crime thriller?
Throughout the couple of decades as an OP-ED journalist in India and abroad, I have usually written articles of human interest and stories for children. But, I’ve always been an Agatha Christie fan and I wanted to write about the supposedly, divine-retributive deaths or about unsolved homicides that I know of – since my childhood and youth. Also, in the last couple of decades, I have come across homicide cases in which a person has been legally judged to be the culprit – without a shred of conclusive, direct evidence. I have wanted to write about that too – use the same murder tool, but nail the culprit with irrefutable direct evidence.
However, till very recently, I was, primarily a full-time homemaker and mother. My priorities were my family and home. Now my child is on her own, my husband has retired, and so I have turned to activities that I have had to put on the back-burner. Writing is one of them.
And, as far as starting with a crime thriller, I have Pune International Literary Festival (PILF) and Vishwakarma Publications(VP) to thank. For the 2017 event, PILF and VP announced the crime-writing competition, the prize being publication of the selected manuscript. I sent in my manuscript. And, the rest, as they say, is history!
2. As a scientist you have been trained in investigation. Did the choice of a crime thriller follow from that – tying the loose ends together? If so, please explain how your scientific temperament allowed you to visualise the story? If not, what aspect of your personality would you credit for this turn towards crime fiction?
I think I’ve always been the kind to question and rationalise. I like ‘working things out’ and have a hard time accepting what I cannot rationalise and understand. Science was a natural extension of that personality trait of mine.
When it comes to crime, I like intelligent, non-violent homicides – I am not very fond of blood and gore! Figuring out which toxin to use so that it can be conveniently administered without arousing suspicion and without raising red flags after death, how to defuse its effects so that nobody suspects and interferes in the murderer’s plans, and how to have a standby suspect, if the need arises.
When I started writing Out Flew The Web, I had to do a lot of research on the net – on the chemistry of the toxin, on the symptoms and pathology caused; I had to work out the symptom timeline to make the crime plausible, and fall back on my knowledge of Pathology and Immunology.
There’s a thrill in tying loose ends. When I used to do basic scientific research in the lab, I had to prove a hypothesis with logical and relevant experiments. The results had to prove my theory, with no room for doubt. If they didn’t, then it was back to the lab-bench for me. The same kind of logical
progression is required in eliminating suspects in a crime. To actually nail the guilty one, logical rationale is required. Be it chemical, anatomical or immunological.
3. You were born and raised in Kolkata, yet your story is based in Pune? What prompted this choice? Usually authors find it convenient to write about places they are most familiar with?
Yes, I was born and raised in Kolkata, but I left Kolkata in 1982 when I went to the US for my PhD. Since then, I have been to many places around the globe, but the other place I have spent a lot more time in – and now, call my second home – is Pune. My husband and I made our home here more than two decades ago, and though we’ve been in-an-out since then, I am more familiar with Pune than I am with today’s Kolkata. I’ve watched Pune grow to the bustling metropolis it is, but have not been around to experience the changes in Kolkata.
So, I write about Pune because I am very familiar with it!
4. I found your writing style rather crisp; you minimize descriptions in favour of describing action. What prompts this writing style? Was it a conscious choice?
Usually when I read a book I hate being diverted from the actual plot or action with a lot of verbose description. I tend to skip those pages. As an author, I want the reader to read every single word, every single page. Not skip over verbose passages, which might run to a few pages.
However, since giving the reader a ‘sense’ of the story is important, I don’t completely eschew descriptions – that wouldn’t allow a story to be written! I have described the characters and situations – through the words and demeanour of the characters.
5. A character in the novel is portrayed to be homosexual suffering from AIDS, and having entered a marriage of convenience to avoid complications under Section 377. As a woman writer writing about a gay character, how do you view the question of representation in art? Is the author responsible for representation of characters from the fringes of society, like queer people, especially if they make choices which are questionable if not outright unethical.
I cannot speak for others, but, yes, I believe as an author, I can try and represent all sections of the society. I don’t plan to change the world, but through my work, I hope to make the readers think a little about superstitions and contentious issues – especially, if they make a person compromise on the kind of life they want, or is a reason for their death.
I want to add that I would prefer to be known as just a writer, not a woman writer. Sensitivity and responsible handling of superstitions or divisive issues should have no gender attached to it. A writer is a writer – be it a man or a woman.
6. What is on your current reading list?
I am currently trying to write a second murder mystery – working title, Road to Antenora. The seed for that story is in my debut novel, Out Flew The Web. Thus, whatever free time I have is spent in researching the topic and reading up about it as much as I can. So, I don’t really have a ‘current reading list’.
7. How has been the experience of publishing with Vishwakarma Publications?
Quite an experience! I learnt that being an author is more than just writing the story and expecting it to be sent to the printers. It’s working in tandem with an editor – who has a better idea of what sells, and the designing team – who work the layout of the text and the cover. It’s a whole different ball-game to publishing scientific research papers!
Mrs. Jaya Mukherjee spoke to Richa Singh, Content Writer, at Investronaut.