Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

Eleventh Hour

Title: Eleventh Hour
Author: S. Hussain Zaidi
Publisher: HarperCollins (2018)
Pages: (Paperback) 256

In the movie Tiranga, the popcorn thriller which had managed to polarise its critics and eventually gain cult status based solely on television reruns and pirated DVDs, Raj Kumar tells his enemies, ‘Just like my bullets, my tongue also talks straight with my enemies,’ thus setting a precedence for years of patriotic thrillers to come, complete with the same template of over the top villains and an honest-to-a-fault patriotic protagonist. While Bollywood has faithfully followed this template for the next decade or so, Indian literature has forayed into the world of such thrillers only recently but has quickly followed up in the footsteps of the visual medium to deliver stylish and taut, if entirely implausible stories of armies and soldiers engaged in battle with almost melodramatic but invisible enemies.

S. Hussain Zaidi manages to steer his story clear of the comedic element of thrillers in his latest book, Eleventh Hour. His writing reflects his experience as a veteran journalist; it is trimmed down to perfection and maintains a pace that makes the book unputdownable. Usually the problem with any thriller is that either the plot gives away too much at an early stage, thus making the rest of the book clichéd, or it starts too slow and results in the reader losing patience. This book is delightfully balanced. The author drives the narrative at his own comfortable speed, giving us an insight into both the tragedies of the past and the obvious danger looming over the present. He also makes use of his knowledge of the places that he has chosen for his story, describing each location with precise details, whether it’s the streets and slums of Bombay or the luxurious confines of a hijacked cruise ship. At various points throughout the book, the reader has to pause and take in the accuracy of the plot, starting from the internal workings of various bureaucratic, anti-terrorism agencies to the murmuring world of Bombay’s underworld. The panic and paranoia of a post 26/11 city still reeling from the feelings of being held hostage by the unknown forces of terrorism are depicted in their visceral entirety and become the driving force behind the main narrative.

By Farah Ghuznavi

Madhulika

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Because there are all these stories rattling about in my head which don’t let me sleep nights. If I don’t write, I’ll be perpetually sleepless.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recent book is Woman to Woman: Stories. This is a collection of twelve short stories, all of which are women-centric. Probably the most important thing I was trying to say through this was that I do have the sensitivity and intelligence to write something other than genre fiction! (Till now, I’ve mostly been associated with either crime fiction or black humour, so I thought it was high time people realized that I was a little more versatile). On a more serious note, I also wanted to draw attention to various problems that plague women—from the mundane to the horrific.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I don’t think I have a writing aesthetic as such, but yes, I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my work. I spend ages doing research (and, considering a lot of what I write is historical, that means a lot of research). And, I read and re-read and edit my work over and over until I am certain it’s as good as I can make it. I can’t bear writing that’s ungrammatical or riddled with errors, of whatever sort.

Who are your favourite authors?

I have lots of favourite authors, but among the top ones would be PG Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Ruskin Bond, Munshi Premchand, Bill Bryson, Gerald Durrell, and Robert van Gulik.

Crime fiction writer Vish Dhamija speaks to Kitaab on the sidelines of the recently concluded Kumaon Literary Festival, where his latest book Nothing Else Matters was launched.

vishWhat are your early memories of writing, how did your interest grow?

My earliest memories are from school days. I used to pen small articles for the school bulletin, like everyone else. Then I took to blogging for some time, but the interest waned over time since it took a lot of my time. Nevertheless, it taught me how to write once again and rekindled my interest.

How did you narrow down to writing under the crime genre?

It wasn’t something I sat down and contemplated or made a conscious choice. I had never read anything else except crime fiction— so when the first story idea came to my mind, it had an element of crime. To date, I honestly do not plot a story planning which genre it will fall under; I plot a story and often it is cross-genre: Déjà Karma was part legal, part psychological, Bhendi Bazaar was noir, and both Nothing Lasts Forever and Nothing Else Matters have elements of romance in them.

Tell us about how your first book – Nothing Lasts Forever. How did it take shape?

The story idea had been in the back of my mind since the early nineties but the usual grind of life took priority and I eventually wrote the first draft in 2008. I have to admit that while the basic premise of the story remained true to the original idea, the final story didn’t have much resemblance to what I had carried in my mind for decades.

What are the challenges crime novelists face?

The first thing any writer needs to learn is discipline and that’s irrespective of the genre. I’ve come across so many people who say they want to write a book but they never get down to writing the first chapter.

Crime writing needs a tight plot: what is the crime? How is it going to occur? How will the story unfold, and how will the protagonist catch the criminal? Or if the protagonist is the doer how will she/he get away with it? The story should be believable — the author should keep the narrative real but interesting.

Cheryl TanCheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based journalist and author of A Tiger In The Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family (Hyperion, 2011). She is the editor of the fiction anthology Singapore Noir (Akashic Books, 2014) and is currently working on her first novel. Born and raised in Singapore, she crossed the ocean at age 18 to go to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

She was a staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, In Style magazine and the Baltimore Sun. Her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Marie Claire, Newsweek, Bloomberg Businessweek, Martha Stewart Weddings, Chicago Tribune, The (Portland) Oregonian, The (Topeka) Capital-Journal and The (Singapore) Straits Times among other places. She has been an artist in residence at Yaddo, where she wrote “A Tiger in the Kitchen,” Hawthornden Castle, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Ragdale Foundation, Ledig House and the Studios of Key West. In 2012, she was the recipient of a major arts creation grant from the National Arts Council of Singapore in support of her novel. An active member of the Asian American Journalists Association, she served on its national board for seven years, ending in 2010.

Currently in Singapore to launch Singapore Noir (Monsoon Books), she shares the deep, dark secrets behind the making of this uniquely Singaporean noir anthology with Kitaab’s editor, Zafar Anjum.

How did the project ‘Singapore Noir’ take off?

I’d long adored and admired New York publisher Akashic Books’s award-winning Noir series — a series of anthologies, each one set in a country or a city. (“Brooklyn Noir” was a personal favorite.) Some really big names have edited these collections of dark stories set in these locales — Joyce Carol Oates edited “New Jersey Noir,” for example, and Dennis Lehane edited “Boston Noir.”

In November 2011, I happened to be at the Miami Book Fair speaking about “A Tiger in the Kitchen,” my first book. At the authors’ party, mystery writer extraordinaire S.J. Rozan introduced me to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher. I told Johnny how much I loved his noir series but asked why there hadn’t been a “Singapore Noir.” He said it was because he didn’t know any Singaporean writers. And S.J. said, “Well now you do.” And that was the beginning of “Singapore Noir.”