10 must-haves for an Indian Whodunnit love story: Tips from The Rat Eater

The Rat Eater has many elements that make it inimitably Indian. So what are these must-haves tropes that spice up a potboiler?
10 must-haves for an Indian Whodunnit love story: Tips from The Rat Eater
10 must-haves for an Indian Whodunnit love story: Tips from The Rat Eater

Kalki is born as the first son to a Dalit couple with nine daughters. The village treats them like animals, calling upon them to perform cruel games for their entertainment. In a different world, Akhil Sukumar is a Cambridge-educated chemistry professor at IIT Powai. In our sprawling sub-continent what is the distance between these two characters? The Rat Eater explores this and more. Written by Anand Ranganathan and Chitra Subramaniam of Bofors fame, and published by Juggernaut, The Rat Eater is a caste-based love story with a murder mystery twist.

The Rat Eater has many elements that make it inimitably Indian. So what are these must-haves tropes that spice up a potboiler?

  1. The premise triangle: When DIG Ajay Biswas moves to Mumbai with his lecturer wife Aparajita Balasubramanian to solve a high profile murder, they reunite with their college friend and chemistry Professor Akhil Sukumar. While their love triangle from years past is being revealed, the DIG gets to work unravelling the identity of the murderer. What's caste got to do with love and murder? Well, that’s the question.

  1. The metro setting: Our ever-accommodating metros, adding to their girth by the day, surely have room for one more novel in its fold. Mumbai with its sea of people, the majestic Taj Mahal Palace hotel, gangsters and local trains is the scene of crime. Delhi, lined with Lutyen's bungalows, lal battis and colleges of repute is where the love story unfolds. The thakur bastion of Batia and Mughalsarai, the major railway junction in Uttar Pradesh represent the dirty nooks and corners of the Indian mindset well hidden by the romance of the metros.

  1. The outdoor locale: It is no surprise that the ‘foreign’ of choice for Sukumar, the academic in the story, is England. Staying true to our Anglophile nature, there are also sections transliterated in English accent. The old, old buildings of Cambridge combined with the loneliness of its rainy chill, makes Akhil realise ‘the invisible draw of my own country’ making him return home. Reverse brain drain, made popular by Gandhi and more recently by Shahrukh Khan in Swades, still has the capacity to capture our imagination.

  2. The masterclass: Clearly, Agatha Christie with her 78 mystery novels knows more about constructing a mystery than all and sundry. Using her novels in a mystery-ception, the authors manage to have the cake and eat it too. Christie’s works provide a pivotal insight that leads directly to the murderer. Why not rope in a master to thicken your plot? I am thinking Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame—just the author to write about the other disadvantaged group in India—women.

  3. The sermon: Just as Krishna imparted wisdom to the conflicted Arjuna about carrying out his dharma, the authors get philosophical with the reader about life, traffic and everything in between. In booster doses that tailend the chapters, the saropadesham pours forth in whimsically lyrical thoughts. The ideas tumble, like uproarious children, nimble and just beyond reach. When in doubt, always resort to verse.

  4. Them trains: The ladies compartment of the Mumbai metro where women chop vegetables for dinner on their evening commute (like Nawazuddin in the movie The Lunchbox). Long haul trains that criss-cross India with mugs chained to the tap in the latrines and the movement of passengers’ bowels dotting the countryside. Fellow travellers who educate on how to get off at an undesignated stop by pulling the chain. That rusty aftertaste of trains captures the workings of the Indian psyche like nothing else can. 

  5. Poverty: If you think about it, in any Indian page-turner, poverty is the real tear-jerker. It sears heart-wrenching imagery into your brain. Can you imagine a readership that isn’t moved by a scene of children sharing food with dogs on railway tracks? 

  6. The intangible brand: "I was born on the bloody road. The blood was my mother's," says the book cover. People so low in the social hierarchy that they give birth on the road with no access to water. How does one rid oneself of this “curse”? One of the characters in the novel suggests, ‘the best I could give to him I thought was my silent protest, my retort: the offer to dilute his cursed blood... an offering to remove the weight of this curse from his children instead. To halve it, with the hope that with time it would get halved again...until one day the cursed blood of Akhil would no longer flow in any living vein.” Caste—our invisible twin—has given us all stories. Dig up and dust off your favourite.

  7. Corruption: It's in the air we breathe. Corruption at the gram panchayat level that chose the lower caste families including children for nasbandhi. Corruption in the police system that booked the person closest to the crime scene. Corruption in the government and in real estate. Corruption as comic relief or to smooth over the logic.

  8. Language: Don’t shy away from profanity. Use the choicest of language that will make your primary school teacher drop dead. Swear to convey emotion and the lack of it. Swear when you mean it and swear for the heck of it. The authors sound tame here with their favourite “ban-cho”. What would you choose?

Now that you know how to write your own Indian bestseller, here’s a pro-tip. Blending these tropes into your novel is all about deft brush strokes.  

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