Murder he writes – a conversation with bestselling author Vish Dhamija

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Author Vish Dhamija is a past master of crime fiction and has nine published books to his credit. We caught up with the best-selling author to delve into the murky world of writing about crime

Words Aninda Sardar

If you met him you wouldn’t really associate the shadowy world of crime with the distinguished looking man with back brushed salt and pepper hair. Yet, in the world of fiction Dhamija is something of a pioneer. Till his first novel, Déja Karma, came along in 2015, legal fiction as a genre rarely existed outside the US. In fact, so unique was his move that the press quickly dubbed him ‘India’s John Grisham’.

“Legal thrillers aren’t common outside of United States, so when I wrote my first one, Déjà Karma, the magazine that reviewed it first, drew a parallel because of the genre, and my publisher (at the time) decided that if we put that “quote” on the cover, it would be good marketing. I never imagined that the tag would stick in the minds of readers and media. But here I am, several years (and books) later, and still being referred to as that,” he remembers, while also stating in the same breath that he isn’t particularly keen on being compared to anyone.

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Vish Dhamija’s definition of legal fiction

But what exactly is this whole business of legal fiction? Dhamija himself concedes that he is basically a fiction writer and if anyone wants to really peg his work down to a specific genre then it would have to be crime fiction. If the story belongs to a particular shelf then it is the nature of the story that puts itself on that shelf. As for legal fiction, his viewpoint is crystal. “Legal fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction or thriller with a slight variation: The main characters are lawyers—criminal, civil, corporate or any other specialization, and the story revolves around court proceedings. The broad framework is based on the legal procedures—a court case, an out of court settlement or something that involves the law,” he explains. Dhamija is equally clear on what doesn’t constitute legal fiction. “I may be wrong, but I doubt that a story of two lawyers falling in love would classify as legal fiction if it doesn’t involve a legal angle of some sort.”

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“I didn’t want a superhero” – Vish Dhamija

It’s the kind of statement that won’t fail to put a wry smile on your face. Which is also when you begin to realise that wry wit and literary techniques are at the core of Dhamija’s craft. More so if you have read any of his nine published works (the tenth is on the way). To the British-Indian author himself however, it is the characters in his stories that are of most significance to him. “I’ve always emphasized that characters are very important in any story. It’s the characters that narrate the story, and not the author,” he explains, before elaborating, “When I thought about writing Bhendi Bazaar, one of my major considerations was: who would tell the story? Of course, the story alternates between past and present, but for the main story in the present, I needed a character that could lead the story. At that stage, I wasn’t even thinking about woman or man, but just the person who’d be best for the job, and for that I needed someone human, slightly flawed—so readers could find it realistic, but also fabulous for readers to like. However, I didn’t want a superhero.”

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Vish Dhamija’s creation, DCP Rita Ferreira is India’s first literary female supercop

The result was the birth of India’s first literary female supercop – Deputy Commissioner of Police, Rita Ferreira. “DCP Rita Ferreira was the answer I was looking for,” says Dhamija. He then goes on to attributing much of the success of the three books that feature DCP Rita to the character he created rather than himself. “I have no doubts that the central character of Rita is pivotal in the success of Bhendi Bazaar, Doosra and Lipstick,” he says matter-of-factly. The fourth Rita Ferreira book is a work in progress as we write. What is amazing is that Rita’s conception was absolutely organic and not a case of astute marketing by a canny author. And what sets her apart is how real she is.  “She makes mistakes, learns from them, has some flaws in the personality that are apparent to the readers; she displays emotions that readers can relate to,” says Dhamija. “Once, I received a message from one reader that he thought he had “spotted” Rita at Dubai Airport—that is how real she is to her readers.”

Rita however is only a part of his extensive repertoire. In fact, his last book The Mogul featured Prem Bedi. “Out of my nine books published so far, Rita stars in only three of them. Rita is not the lead in any of the legal thrillers. There are unique protagonists and antagonists in books, and there are recurring characters like Rita. Akash Hingorani, a defence lawyer, who first appeared in Unlawful Justice, will reappear in the next installment in Cold Justice (early-2021).”

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In Vish Dhamija’s works, the characters take charge

As for the stories themselves, Dhamija only focuses on the start and how events will unfold once a crime has been committed. Once past that, it’s a matter of creating the characters he needs to tell that specific story. And then, it’s up to the characters. “I let the characters take charge. The subplots, the twists and the narrative are what the characters make me write,” he says, choosing instead to remain in the shadows as the author. Makes me wonder, what Rita might be up to in the next one.