For my first novel, You Beneath Your Skin, I made a huge publicity push, traveling from once city to another for a month or more after its publication. It was my debut, and it paid off. The book turned an Amazon bestseller in India, was optioned by Endemol Shine for a screen adaptation.
Here are a few links where The Blue Bar appeared: (click links for the entire reviews/ interviews)
“Meticulous local color matches sensitive characterizations, including of brave Mumbai police who try to overcome the deadly hazards of the corrupt system they have to work in. This searing portrait of marginalized people struggling for survival is unforgettable.”
“Narrator Sneha Mathan’s strong performance transports listeners to the streets of Mumbai as police Inspector Arnav Singh Rajput is called to investigate a dismembered body, which he soon realizes is the work of a serial killer. As he races to track down the murderer, using any methods available, his past and present converge, bringing new challenges. Mathan’s narration is spot-on. She creates believable male and female characters, in particular clearly differentiating key characters as the plot moves between the present and the past. Her authentic-sounding accents and pronunciation of Indian names and phrases help to set the scene and create the perfect atmosphere for this intriguing mystery.”
“Some authors would have you believe that they enjoy the “act of writing.” That they love the ability to sink into another character’s head and navigate a new world.
Damyanti Biswas is not that author.
Biswas freely admits that the joy she hopes to find from writing has yet to appear—she writes because she must. Because every time she tries not to, she finds herself back at the computer painstakingly pecking out every word, every sentence, every paragraph.
The irony, perhaps, is that Biswas makes it look easy. Her latest release, THE BLUE BAR, is a meticulously crafted police procedural set in Mumbai, where the setting—both the Bollywood glitz and the city’s seedy underworld—comes to life with such intensity you can almost smell the air.
In THE BLUE BAR, Biswas introduces us to a serial killer, a missing dancer, and the gritty detective on their trail. It is a story of love, murderous obsession, and second chances. And thankfully, it’s the first in a new series. It’s no surprise that the book is racking up accolades, including a coveted Amazon #1 New Release banner.”
“Human society works on self-interest and some parts of it always end up being more powerful than others. Depending on where the society is located, various sections of society will vie for power with others.
A financial hub like Mumbai, a melting pot of many cultures, as well as the birthplace and destination of so many dreams, is no exception. The power lies in the hands of politicians and the police, the corporates and the dream merchants as well as those who seek to profit from it all through violence: the criminals.
Mumbai is all about the shifting sands of power. A few decades ago, the criminal underworld held sway and then the politicians and Mumbai Police took control. The collaborations are many and quite uneasy: the police, the politicians, the corporates, and Bollywood each work in their own self-interest, and form alliances that would most benefit themselves. Power coalesces in certain hands, be it financial, political, physical/ police, or image/ movie stars, and that’s exactly the Mumbai we see in The Blue Bar.”
“The Blue Bar, for all intents and purposes, builds suspense by keeping the identity of its killer and his motive undiscoverable till the end. The supporting characters, made up of other cops, underworld dons and Bollywood actors, pump blood into the thriller without allowing the proceedings to get caught up in a series of endless repetitions.
And since Rajput isn’t a rookie, he knows how it feels to get closer to his target. A key piece of the puzzle is the Blue Bar, where Tara works, and the establishment after which the book is titled. Rajput, however, doesn’t race to the finishing line alone. He has his assistant and friends helping him through the way. With a dramatic recreation of a police chase that, in moments, turns violent, Biswas gets the larger canvas of the novel on point. Almost all the main characters get physically injured at one point or another.
It is evident that the author has spent a lot of time researching the working lives of police officers and actors, and she sprinkles her findings throughout the novel. To the book’s advantage, the digressions don’t become bumps in the narrative, but there are subplots that are dispensable. Also, her observations regarding guns, consumption of alcohol, and the nefarious dealings between cops and criminals that form a large part of the background don’t offer any fresh insight into Mumbai’s underbelly.
With this novel, Biswas has created the type of thriller that seems to have been written with the notion of making it readily work for a television audience. Detective thriller has, after all, emerged as the most successful sub-genre under crime fiction over the last few years, both on paper and on screen, and The Blue Bar appears to fit the bill for both.”
“It is clear that much research has gone into the writing. All of it comes out in the descriptions of the city’s slums, in the insights into the lives of Mumbai’s police personnel and the workings of the film industry. The Blue Bar navigates the murky world of Mumbai’s dance bars, explores their nexus with the police, Bollywood, real estate tycoons and the underworld and also presents how bar dancers are viewed by religious institutions, women’s rights groups and society at large.
The book begins with the line “Endings are overrated” but what’s a whodunit without an unexpected twist leading to a satisfying denouement? “Sometimes the best looking, most innocent faces hide criminals,” writes Biswas. And thereby hangs a tale.”
“Endings are overrated. There’s only one true, certain end – everything else a load of bullshit, or how you call it, bakwaas. Beginnings, though. Beginnings are everywhere. It all began with that midnight-colored saree, thick with dark-blue sequins, its endless sea of shimmering dots stitched by hands that must have cracked and bled over the months of needle in and out of taut cloth in some dingy, godforsaken hole in one of Mumbai’s stinking alleyways.”
“Crime writing caters to certain reader expectations that I struggle with: the pace must be relentless, the story easy to read, and the protagonist always triumphant. I’ll explain the challenge and the lesson, in each case.
When it comes to pace, I wrestle with what gets shown vs what is told and when. I tend to summarize important bits of action and show characters in greater detail than needed. I’ve had to learn ways to prioritize the investigation/action, but not at the expense of characters. Pace also suffers when your red herrings are clumsy, or if you explain backstory. Cutting backstory and using it in brushstrokes has been effective. All red herrings must make sense in terms of motive, means and opportunity, and this is a challenge for a literary writer used to depending on language rather than plot. I’ve had to verify during edits that each suspect does indeed have a motive, the means, and an opportunity.
The second challenge is cultural: I write stories set in India for a Western audience. Translating not just terms, but embedded cultural beliefs is hard to do with finesse, especially without sacrificing pace. While the rest of the world is used to researching Western terms, Western audiences are new to looking up unfamiliar non-Western ones. Keeping the reader oriented, without disrespectful spoon-feeding, is a delicate balance, especially in a novel with multiple points of view and timelines, as well as a complex plot. I’ve had to use language with as much precision as possible in order to be able to respect both the character/story and the reader.
The third hurdle, about making the protagonist triumphant, is not easy for me personally because I come from a background of literary, realistic writing. Corruption is often rampant in an Indian setting, as in many others, and it’s hard to create an ending that is earned, believable, and in line with genre expectations. The lesson here has been to make only the narrative promises on which the story can realistically deliver. I’ve tried to make the context come alive so that the ending satisfies on the level of story as well as on-the-ground realities.”
“I wanted the police work to sound authentic. I am lucky to have some contacts who could share the way things work in Mumbai. I shared the plot and worked to understand the training they get and talk about interpersonal connections. They helped me understand how organized crime works. I walked the streets. I even visited a Bollywood set. I am very lucky to have those connections, but I needed to work to get that firsthand experience.”
This was the first time a book I’ve written has crossed 2,000 ratings on Goodreads and is reaching about 3,000 ratings on Amazon, but the fact remains that if not for the racist comments, (complicated names, confusing names–as if they’ve never read complex French or Scandinavian names) in some of the reviews, it probably might have done even better.
Let’s hope things improve with The Blue Monsoon, because there isn’t much I can do anymore for The Blue Bar. In the meanwhile I can console myself with the coverage received so far. Listing it was a way to see it for myself. That there are people who actually liked the book, who might be open to stories in a different setting and that it might be just a matter of finding the right audience.
Racist reviews are hurtful, but it is what is.
I’ll give thanks for all the good reviews, and for friends amongst you who have read and reviewed The Blue Bar, who have bought the book, recommended it to libraries. On any given day, love and gratitude trump hate. I need to believe that.
If you’re a writer, have you ever had racist comments directed at your work? As a reader, when you read for diversity, do you let an unfamiliar setting and character names deter you?
My crime novel, The Blue Bar is out this year with Thomas & Mercer. Add it to Goodreads or order it to make my day.
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