Crime writing in India is often set in big towns and features characters that are slick and suave – this might be because our authors are inspired by crime fiction set in the West. Neeraj Chawla’s ‘The Last Poisoners of 6’ brings the genre closer home with the subcontinental feel in its story and characters, who move through the small galis of Chandni Chowk with their jalebiwalas and davakhanas. Neeraj does a brilliant job of bringing to life characters we would encounter in our daily lives. He invites the reader to take a closer look at the chaotic, bustling spaces of local markets like Chandni Chowk, which is a rich setting for stories, especially those bordering on crime and fantasy. It has taken a fresh eye like Neeraj’s to coax these nuances out.
When the story was first submitted on the Writing Platform, the Juggernaut Editors read it and fell in love with it. We simply had to commission the story, feature it as the ‘Short Story of the Week’ and kick up a storm to share the thrill we felt reading it.
When we commission a story from the Writing Platform, we see if it requires work in terms of structure, characters, editing and whether it has a suitable ending. Neeraj’s story required only one round of line editing to polish and fix the language. We pored over cover options and found an image that looked like a scene right out of the story – the family pandit on a rickshaw with Jama Masjid in the backdrop heading to commission an assassination. Working with Neeraj has been a pleasure. It’s always inspiring and encouraging to work with new authors who bring something incredibly fresh to India’s writing landscape.
What was the inspiration for the story?
Chandni Chowk. Its unique environment and old-world charm sparked the idea.
I saw an advertisement glued to an electricity pole: ‘Contact us for we can solve any problem you may have — property, marriage, money etc.’ It was an astrologer’s number and that’s what gave me the idea for the premise. I have always been fascinated with shops in Chandni Chowk, especially the Ayurveda and Homeopathy ones. It’s always surprised me that people actually go there. Maybe because my dad is a doctor, I grew up being skeptical of this line of work. But I find that there is faith involved in such healing, almost on par with religion or God. It just amazes me. As a writer, you take that inspiration and run with that. Crime becomes the extreme of that faith.
It’s more fantasy than crime. I stopped reading general fiction about fifteen years ago. I have known and read George R.R. Martin from years before his television series came out. That is the kind of work that fascinates me. I am not writing about crime but about the unknown. Crime is just incidental. My work is a little off-beat and a little on the fantasy track. It veers into the occult or the unknown, something that keeps coming back in my work. I don’t know how that happens but it does.
In general fiction, you are limited by the world around you in some ways. But in fantasy you are not limited by the same rules, they are far more creative and far richer, and I can easily connect with it.
Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
I already spoke about George R.R. Martin. Then there’s Robert Jordan. He wrote a series of eleven books, or thirteen now – he died before he finished his last book. His wife picked up his notes and gave it to an author. The concluding book was supposed to be one book and turned into three. That’s The Wheel of Time series. Joe Abercombie is another writer who does amazing work.
When did you start writing and how do you schedule time to write, with a full-time job?
I started writing about two years ago. I write whenever I have spare time, on the weekends, or when I am travelling – in airport lounges and on flights. I have always wanted to write, but I have a demanding full-time job in the corporate sector. I am also married and have two daughters. I had just been procrastinating on writing. But a couple of years ago the Write India series came out. I picked up a pen and wrote my first story. It was horrible. But I kept writing. The third story I submitted was for the same series, I was placed in the top ten in India. Between the first and third story, I read about writing, the process of writing and taught myself to write better. It’s amazing validation for me that it gets selected for a commendation or be published, like with Juggernaut.
What has your experience with the Juggernaut Writing Platform been like?
For aspiring writers such as myself, the Juggernaut Writing Platform is the ideal place to showcase your work and understand if people like and relate to it. Some of my stories have been accepted at online writing portals but Juggernaut Books is the first publisher I have approached. When the story from the Writing Platform was picked up by the editors, I felt a lot of relief and a boost to my self-confidence. It was a validation of my craft, that my work was worthy of being published.
“The Last Poisoners of 6″, a story about an Ayurvedic practitioner who settles disputes with a deadly poison, blew our editors away. Neeraj calls himself a late bloomer to writing, is a Delhi native and an IT corporate executive. Fantasy genre has influenced his writing, some of which you can find on leading writing portals. He is scared of witches, ghosts and is awaiting the impending Zombie apocalypse.