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An interview with scholar and writer,
Harini Nagendra

By Divya Ravindranath

13 March 2024

Harini Nagendra is a professor of ecology and the Director, Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability, at Azim Premji University. She is a well-known public speaker and writer on issues of nature and sustainability, internationally recognized with honors that include the 2009 Cozzarelli Prize from the US National Academy of Sciences, the 2013 Elinor Ostrom Senior Scholar award, and the 2017 Clarivate Web of Science award for interdisciplinary research in India.

Her non-fiction books include Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, and three books co-authored with Seema Mundoli – Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities, So Many Leaves, and Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, which received the 2020 Publishing Next Awards for best English non-fiction book in India, and was featured on the 2021 Green Literature Festival’s honor list. The Bangalore Detectives Club was her first crime fiction novel. The sequel, Murder Under a Red Moon, was published in 2023, and the third book, A Nest of Vipers, will be out in May 2024.

In this interview, she dives deep into her writing process for The Bangalore Detectives Club books; her plans for the upcoming ones in the series; Bangalore of the late 19th and early 20th century; how she uses non-fiction for world building in her crime novels; and reveals who would Kaveri hangout with in a secret female detective club!

1. Before the publication of Bangalore Detectives Club in 2022, one perhaps thought of Harini Nagendra as an academic chronicler of the city. Your fiction books have come as a delightful surprise. How did you get to fiction writing? And how has it been received by your readers?
 

Many people have asked me how I turned to fiction. But to me, it was always fiction, that was my first love. I enjoy writing non-fiction but the joy I get from fiction is a completely different thing. I have always read fiction voraciously. I wrote a lot of fiction when I was much younger. Even during my postdoc when I was in Bloomington, I published literary short stories. Writing short stories was much easier for me but writing historical fiction seemed very hard. I am not much of a plotting kind of person. I sit and write and let the words take me where they go. Because of this, when I started to write The Bangalore Detectives Club, I first had to learn – for myself - how to write a detective story from end to end. I changed the plot three times and I paused the book multiple times, sometimes for years at a stretch. In 2007, I started writing the first book, and in 2020 the first one was published. 

I am very touched by the reception in India and outside India. All my ecologist friends say, we know an ecologist has written this. And that surprises me because the first version had a lot more ecology in it and I had to take them out because it was pulling the story down. I feel there is much less ecology than I would have liked to add, if it were not for the compulsions of the plot. 

2. That is interesting. I don’t think I registered the leads on ecology in the book, but when I read Kaveri (central protagonist of the series), I thought that's an ode to the River Kaveri which is central to Bangalore’s existence. In both your fiction and nonfiction writing, your love and familiarity with Bangalore as a city is palpable. Is the city in some ways your starting point for various forms of narratives? 
 

The city is not just a setting, it is definitely a strong character in my writing. In book four, I have a bit of Bangalore but it is also going to take us to a plantation in Coorg. Last week, I was diving into this part of the book, and it was challenging. I am so used to Bangalore as a setting. I had to really change gears and now I finally feel I am mentally in Coorg and able to write about it. 

3. Then what does it take to move to another setting?

 

That’s a lovely question. I wanted to explore another theme. There is always something in the backdrop. In book three, Prince Edward comes to Bangalore and in that entire process we see a lot of the independence movement. In book four, I wanted to take us into things that an ecologist would look at - human domination over nature, colonial perspective, the transformation of landscapes. 

I also didn't want to keep Kaveri in Bangalore. The book starts and ends with Bangalore but I want the readers to explore other landscapes as well to see how lives were in other parts in that time period. I looked at various places, the plot could go to Chikmaglur or Madras presidency or Bombay presidency. But I decided on Coorg because it seemed more natural for Kaveri to go there – especially given that Lakamma, a central character in previous books, comes from Coorg. 

 

4. In other interviews, you have said the research and experience of non-fiction writing gave you a lot of material for fiction writing. Can you tell us more about the process, and the types of resources you used to research Bangalore of the 1920s. How does one take archival material and turn it into fiction narrative?  

In newspaper articles, administrative reports, Diwan’s speeches, or photographs, I am always looking for some interesting events that may have happened. In book two, we begin with the Ugliest Dog competition. There was a horse show that was held in Bangalore multiple times and there was also a dog show in colonial Bangalore, with an ugliest dog prize as one of the awards. So I thought that was a perfect beginning. The British dogs were considered to be pure bred and Indian dog breeds with their own features were often dismissed as mongrels. I thought I could turn this around to write about an Indian dog that Kaveri rescues. I am also looking for incidents that will resonate with the world today. There is so much discussion on Indie breeds and how one should adopt. 

In book three of The Bangalore Detectives Club series, A Nest of Vipers, I focused on Prince Edward’s visit to Bangalore, but I was also searching for a second theme. I found a fascinating set of archival documents about Jadu and Jadugars in India. And you find that there were Indian magicians, but also American and European magicians who capitalized on the Indian idea of Jadu for their own profit. Because western audiences were captivated by the exotic idea of oriental magicians, many western magicians would dress up in Indian costumes, and take acts from India. At the same time, they would dismiss performances done by Indian magicians, calling them charlatans. There is very interesting Indian sociological literature on this duality and distortion - how western magicians were capitalising on Indian magic at one level but also saying Indian magicians were tricksters and fraudsters. So, I thought I should have an Indian magician who is proud of his work in the book, and play against this narrative. 

In book four, there is a lot about the colonial practice of hunting. I am setting it in Coorg, but there was a real life incident that I was impacted by. There was a brutal account of a leopard hunt in the racecourse: British officers, looking for entertainment, approached the Mysore king – and got a leopard transported to the Bangalore Race Course in a cage. They eventually killed the leopard, but not before it attacked some of the ‘natives’  including a woman with a child. It was horrific. The account described these men as being valorous. And I thought I could not see any valour in this. Their search for entertainment led to a travesty of a hunt, which also showed how the Indian people involved seemed so dispensable. This horrific entire incident played at the back of my mind and I know it will make its way into the book. This is really what it is - going from an archive into fiction. 

The challenge is how do we fictionalise it without moralising? That is the death of a story. The reader must be able to make up their mind without characters preaching.
 

5. When you are writing a series, you also have to capture change over time. This could be cultural, political, familial. Tell us how you capture changing times both in the lives of your characters and the city.

 

In book four, I am eighteen months away from where I started. It is not that long of a time gap, but still many things have happened. Prince Edwards has come and gone, and his visit and the protests across the country that followed, changed India. Gandhi came to Bangalore,and his visit also impacted the nascent Swaraj movement in Bangalore. This is a period of rapid transition. Women’s educational issues are being discussed in the Mysore kingdom. Book four is set in 1922, but women get the right to education at the graduate level in Bangalore in Science a few years later. I do not want Kaveri to wait that long, so I have to figure out how to incorporate those timelines. 

Somewhere between 1922-23, women also get the right to suffrage in Bangalore. They can run for elections to the Mysore Representative Assembly, and that possibility is a huge step forward for women’s rights in the 1920s. I try to keep my plot lines close enough so I can cover these changes. 

What the long arc of my characters is, really depends on my readers’ response. I am currently working on books four, five and six, for which I have a book contract. I know what I am going to do in that period.  I would like to do books seven, eight and nine as well, but we will have to see where the publishers wish to go with this – which depends on my readers! So far they have been extraordinarily supportive, and I am very grateful.

If I get into the 1930s, the independence movement will pick up in Bangalore, and play an increased role in future books. That time period also takes us closer to World War II and to the explosion in technology – the growth of Bangalore becomes quite explosive, new job opportunities start coming up - the KRS dam has been built, Bangalore has been electrified for a while, telephone and train lines spread across the area. I have to keep these things in mind. A lot of the background research I do does not necessarily get into the book. I also look at what is plausible from the perspective of plot points and time lines. 

6. Female detective books are a separate genre. In the Indian context, it is an interesting genre to explore because perhaps women find their clues through their connections in the community. Afterall women take active part in addressing larger societal concerns and take on responsibility for community building. 

That is very true. For me community was very centric as this is the main theme that inspires much of the academic work I do, on commons. Much of detective fiction follows a conventional “Hero’s Story” narrative arc. Generally, they feature a sole brave person who is leading the march. I was very sure that Kaveri’s story would be one of community, because that idea is so central to everything I do, including my research. Even in real life you cannot do anything alone.

7. But what does it take to do this kind of world building, especially because women’s everyday stories - whom they share coffee with, whom they chat with - are not found in formal archival material unless they can be labelled as something important in the official sense.

You’re absolutely right. A lot of my information had to come from different, personal sources - that came from talking to people and family. I spent time asking my mother about her past, her mother and grandmother, their relatives. For instance, what were things like when she went to her friend’s house and they were not from the same community; what would she eat, what her mother allowed her to eat, and what would she eat and not tell her mother about. Similarly, what would her brother eat – because the men were allowed to get away with a lot more. There are many interesting stories one can find. 

My father’s mother, who passed away long time ago, was born in 1907. My father’s father was born in 1899. So, I could ask my aunts and other relatives for stories about these older women in my family. My paternal grandmother got married at 12 or 13. She was a lawyer’s daughter but she was not allowed to go to school till her sister fought with their father. She could eventually write in five languages. That story and sense of community stayed with me – how the teacher came and argued on their behalf to their father saying that the girls must be let to go to school. They were made to sit separately near the wall outside the door separate from the boys. These are the little things that you will not find elsewhere. 

The second method I used extensively was oral histories. I did not want this series of books to be confined to a certain caste and class that I knew better because of my own family past. I was very clear about that. We had recorded a lot of oral histories over the years as part of my academic work on urban ecology - with fishers, weavers, grazers, horticulturists and many other communities that are less known and less studied, but who played a very important role in colonial times. I drew from that data because there were stories about how people crossed boundaries, perhaps much more than in upper caste communities. Our questions were on ecology but people told us a lot more because they do not separate these things into boxes like we do as academics. There is a lot I learnt from them. For example, the generosity – people who have very little share a lot more. There are stories that they just share in casual conversation, which shake and humble you. I wanted to add these stories about how people reach out to others across boundaries. 

The third part is books of various kinds like autobiographies and biographic narratives. I read a book which describes a relationship between two neighbours from different communities. One man was a wealthy merchant who would travel all over. His wife was pregnant and loved rasam, and the neighbouring family would send it to her. In Indian families we don’t send back an empty dabba back – we fill it with something. But the neighbours wouldn’t eat cooked food prepared by someone from another community. So there was an unspoken norm established between them, that when her husband came back from his travels, she would return the dabba filled with dry fruits. This would seem quite insulting to us- but yet in those times people found ways to coexist and share with neighbours while following still following cultural restrictions. The businessman loved the sun - so he would bring a chair and sit in his neighbour’s garden, and that was also part of the sharing that neighbours practised while maintaining other types of separation. You found ways to break the walls while maintaining a certain distance. It is interesting because while we have broken many boundaries today, we have also become more intolerant in many ways. How was tolerance in Bangalore built (at that time) but what were the limits to that tolerance? There were lines that were not transgressed. It is complex. 

I find that to foreign editors I have to do a lot of explaining when I write some of these aspects into my stories. But Indian readers will understand that we find ways to navigate very complicated relationships, without thinking twice. My editors sometimes suggest edits that would paint people and their cultural contexts as black or white, with the aim to make them more understandable to outside readers. I have become better at pushing back. insisting that my characters act as they would in real life, in those times, as grey – at some places the characters are ‘liberal’ and at some places they are not likely to cross boundaries.

8. Were there other influences on you, things that introduced you to Bangalore or Karnataka in English or Kannada?

 

There was a two-volume set produced in early 2000s which had several 2 or 3 paged autobiographical chapters, mostly written by men. There was one chapter where a man wrote about his mother, who followed cattle at 4.00 am in Malleshwaram to collect their dung. She would convert these into dung cakes, and sell them as fuel, to earn extra money and pay their school fees. You are not likely to find these kinds of details that make a context and time come alive elsewhere in official archives. 

I moved from Delhi at the age of ten, so Kannada was my third language. My parents are Kannadigas from Tamil Nadu – while we speak Kannada at home, they were fluent in reading and writing Tamil, not Kannada. I now read a lot more Kannada than I did as a child. But I do read translations.

One book, Mookajjiya Kathegalu by Shivram Karanth had a big influence on me. It is not about Bangalore but has a similar atmosphere to the places I like to write about, with ashwata kattes and pehalwans nearby. That slow rhythm of life. I try  to put some of that atmosphere into mt work .

Another influential book for me was Women Writing in India by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. In the first volume there is one story written by a Bengali woman who has to cook for a large family -she is from a Brahmin family and cannot get any outside help. The chapter describes a time in her life when she cooks and feeds others, but goes hungry for three days because of various incidents - her husband comes home unexpectedly and she serves him the food she cooked for herself, or she is about to sit to eat her, but her child pees on the rice. In the same chapter there is a description of how she taught herself to read and write. Her husband refuses to teach her to read, and she says when my son grows up, he will teach me. But even her son laughs at her and mocks her desire to read. Then she takes her grandson’s books and at night teaches herself and writes a diary in secret, which she leaves in a trunk that is discovered later. It is very moving and very saddening. But she was an inspiration for my character Uma aunty whose husband scoffs at her. I tried to capture how it must feel for a woman who desires so badly to learn how to read – when her own son, whom she believes will take care of her, grows up into a man who sneers at her innermost desires.

9. Then fiction books like yours become important sources because they are engaging with diverse material, bringing us stories of women that don’t make it to formal archives. Fiction builds a different version without which we would only know the male perspective of life.

Yes. My mother and mother-in-law both completed BSc degrees – they went to a hostel and fought with their families to gain education. My mother-in-law’s lasting regret was how she did not do anything of her own. My mother is now 86 and I hear the same thing from her. They had otherwise good lives and they poured their energies into raising their children, but it is their everlasting regret that they could not do what they wanted to do in terms of building a professional career for themselves. It hurts to hear their stories. Writing is a catharsis, a way to make sure that at least Kaveri and Uma aunty get what they want in their lives. We have to deal with the fact that we denied women a voice of their own completely in historical times. At the archives it is so hard to find anything written by women about their own experiences– I scavenged through so much material.  

10. Now a different question. If there was an underground secret female detective club who is Kaveri likely to hang out with?

 I never thought of that. Definitely she would hang out with Miss Silver, an elderly retired governess who solves mysteries in books by Patricia Wentworth. I don’t think Kaveri would hang out with Miss Marple. I love those books, but Marple can be very prejudiced and biased about ‘foreigners’. I think Kaveri would also like Harriet Vane, as written by Dorothy Sayers – she would appreciate the brilliance of Harriet’s mind, and the opportunity to exchange notes on Science, Math and English. For sure, she would love to meet Miss Molly from Scotland Yard, written by Baroness Orczy, who is one of her idols. Kaveri would also love to shadow Sherlock Holmes to see how he does what he does.

11. The next book is out in May 2024. What can you tell us about it?

A Nest of Vipers covers the visit by Prince Edwards to India. In 1921, he faced a lot of resistance in Bombay and Delhi. Crowds are protesting, rioting, setting things on fire. He removed himself to the forests of India, going on hunts. Then he visited  Bangalore and Mysore in January 1922, for a very short visit – only a couple of days. The newspaper accounts that I found say that he came to Bangalore to large welcoming crowds - in part because Bangalore is a princely state, and the Maharaja is navigating a complicated terrain, needing to ensure that the Prince’s visit passed off smoothly. But I wanted to explore what might have happened if things did not go so smoothly. What if there was a plot to disrupt his visit? We know that a few days later, there was the infamous Chaura Chauri incident where a protest led to the storming of a police station, and multiple deaths. Gandhi was very upset because of the violence and he halted the Non Cooperation Movement at this time. I don’t get to that time period – but what I have done is to reimagine Edward’s visit to Bangalore. The book opens at a theatre where there was  a magic show. In the backdrop, is the ecological change in the city. Sampige Lake has become a maidan by 1922 – later, the Congress uses it to host influential gatherings. I have re-imagined the Sampige maidan as a venue for the jadu show and the mysterious happenings there. Kaveri gets held up in it. I also took elements of women’s stories from the fight for India’s independence from P. Sainath’s wonderful book The Last Heroes: Foot Soldies of Indian Freedom, which has rare archival stories of women’s voices.

 

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