The death of the celebrated Indian crime novelist Ved Prakash Sharma at the age of 62 in February was greeted by an outpouring of emotion from fans and critics alike. Sharma was among India’s bestselling novelists, and several of his books were adapted into hit movies.
He began his career in 1971 as a ghost writer. He wrote 23 novels which were published without his name on the cover before finally publishing Dahekte Shehar (Burning Cities) in 1973, which became an instant hit. He went on to publish more than 170 titles and achieved such celebrity that readers would line up at bookshops on the day of publication.
His 1992 novel Wardi wala Gunda (The Uniformed Goon) sold an unprecedented 1.5m copies on publication day and went on to sell more than 80m. An urban legend goes that Sharma once boarded a train to discover that almost everybody in the carriage was reading a copy of his novel.
Like many of his contemporary crime writers in Hindi, Sharma was deeply influenced by translated works of Western authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and James Hadley Chase. His novels are often known for their racy, thrilling plots, but woven in are the details of forensic practices and crime scene analysis. His protagonists use fingerprint evidence, phone records and the like to catch their criminals.
The challenge for Sharma was how to pitch his novels to a mass readership which often resided in non-metropolitan Tier II cities , possessed basic education and very little knowledge of forensic science and its principles. He did so by keeping the procedural details simple but pertinent.
The opening scene of The Uniformed Goon introduces readers to the power of forensic evidence in a murder trial. It depicts bent police officer Inspector Deshraj, framing Govinda, an innocent man, for murder. Deshraj gloats to his colleagues that he has meticulously planted Govinda’s fingerprints on the murder weapon as well as sprinkling Govinda’s clothes with blood superficially matching that of the victim. “I have ensured that the judge will see enough evidence to send Govinda to his death,” Deshraj boasts.
But how, ask Deshraj’s colleagues, will you fool the forensics experts with blood that didn’t actually come from the victim? To this, Deshraj confidently states (rather erroneously as it turns out) that the forensic experts will check only which group the blood was from, rather than analysing its DNA for comparison with the victim.
Sharma’s fellow crime novelist, Surendra Mohan Pathak – the author of 270 books that have sold 25m copies – has written about the difficult task of representing forensic procedures in his novels when his readers expect a fast-paced thriller. For instance, in the preface to Choro ki Baraat (Procession of Thieves) Pathak cautions the reader that the average time it takes for a crime to be solved in his series is three to four days – hardly enough time for the realistic examination of forensic clues such as fingerprint evidence:
Reports are received after a long time. Some tests require samples to be sent to labs set up in Hyderabad, Chandigarh, etc. Now think for yourself: If a sample is sent to these places from Delhi, how long will it take to get the results?
Pathak’s popular Crime Club series features Vivek Agashe, a criminologist who relies on forensic techniques to solve crimes. The author gives his readers a blow-by-blow account of how he assembles his forensic evidence. Through detective protagonists like Agashe, the theme of slow, organised, scientific investigation has emerged in Hindi crime fiction.
This focus on forensic details has raised the same questions in India as in the West about the portrayal of forensic detection in crime fiction. There are concerns at the way sensationalist representation of forensics might create an unreasonable expectation about the infallibility of forensic evidence and the belief that courts rely overwhelmingly on fingerprints and DNA evidence to bring criminals to justice.
It can lead authors to wilfully ignore the fact that, in the real world, forensic evidence is only one piece of the jigsaw used to prosecute offenders – and often it is not the clinching piece of evidence that sends them to jail.
But there are many who believe that popularising scientific procedures through fiction can raise awareness of specialist detection techniques. Studies have suggested that ordinary people who read crime fiction are better at weighing up the value of forensic evidence when acting as jurors in criminal trials.
And let’s not forget that the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of readers of crime fiction in India are also voters who will want to see these techniques used in real life to solve all crimes – not just in high-profile and sensational cases, something that has been a major criticism of the country’s criminal justice system. That can only be good news for the badly needed process of modernisation of India’s police force.