Make sure the twist is really twisted: Arnab Ray talks about Mahabharata Murders
Arnab Ray is no stranger to the novel space. After breaking out with May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss, the author followed it up with the thriller The Mine. Then came Yatrik and Sultan of Delhi: Ascension. Now, his latest book Mahabharata Murders is making waves.
Based loosely on the Mahabharata epic, the book has it all – blood, gore, and two detectives racing against time to prevent a psychopath on a killing spree. Set in a dark and sinister Kolkata, not one you have come across before, the novel draws you in with its clever twists.
While many might be tempted to compare Mahabharata Murders with Srijit Mukherji's thriller flick Baishe Shrabon, but Ray creates a more tangible story for his murder mystery.
Definitely one of better books we've read this year, we spoke to Ray to find out more about what went into writing Mahabharata Murders. These are the edited excerpts:
Jhinuk Sen (JS): Straight up - how did this idea come to you?
Arnab Ray (AR): I wish I knew exactly when. I guess it was around college that I had this inspiration for a re-imagination of the Mahabharata, though it was many years later when I could finally wrap my idea around a crime thriller. That was the real challenge, putting them both together in a coherent way. I am deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers.
JS: Mahabharata has been interpreted and reinterpreted many times before, there are even books written from the perspective of the Kauravas - what made you approach it in this diabolical way?
AR: The thing about the Mahabharata is that it allows you to define new villains and new heroes, while not deviating from canon. It's all there, you just need to put the proper lens on it.
JS: Is it hard to write a thriller? What are the most difficult issues you had to face while writing Mahabharata Murders?
AR: The first thing you struggle with while writing is reader expectations. Whenever someone hears “murders” (and I include myself in this group) one thinks Agatha Christie, dead body in library, alibis, wills, vanishing murder weapons, locked room mysteries, and the mysterious au-pair girl.
The more modern crime thriller, where the focus is not so much on the mechanics of the crime, but on the why, is at the same time difficult to write, as well as to accept. Then it is to make sure that the twist is really twisted, the last thing you want is to telegram the twist on page forty-eight.
You need to keep things moving, but you also need to give space for the characters to grow. Being strongly anchored to another book (the Mahabharata in this case), you need to provide the context and the narrative hooks, so that the reader does not feel lost, but also make sure that the story advances, and we are not down to “Here is what is going on” poke-in-the-eye exposition.
And after the thriller is done, the most difficult thing is to deal with reviews where the ending is given out, either directly or in a way that would ruin the experience for a new reader.
JS: Why did you set the story in Kolkata?
AR: It is the city I know the most. Also, I wanted to deviate from the Kolkata clichés – the Durga Pujo, and the muffler, and the Victoria Memorial and the Naxal, and imagine a more twisted, darker city within the city. Kolkata, and I have consciously striven for this effect, is a character too in this book, shadowy and mysterious, and not very likeable.
JS: How difficult, or easy, was it to narrate the story from Ruksana Ahmed's point of view? Why did you choose her as the narrative voice?
AR: I have been wanting to write in a female voice for some time, purely as a writing challenge, and the Mahabharata Murders gave me the perfect opportunity to do so. Again without giving away spoilers, Ruksana's gender and her backstory is vital to what happens in the book, and this is one character I loved writing, the sense of humor, the self-deprecation, the vulnerability and the strength.
JS: What is next for Arnab Ray?
AR: The conclusion of my crime saga Sultan of Delhi. And then back to horror in Shakchunni, set in 1930s Bengal.