About 25 years ago, largely unnoticed by anybody, a bearded man called Harry was having a cup of tea at Samovar, the café in downtown Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery complex. This was his first visit to the town.

It is an interesting fact that before then, the British detective novelist who is better remembered as H.R.F. Keating (1926-2011) had written several novels in his popular series about Inspector Ganesh V. Ghote, without actually setting foot in the city that serves as an evocative tropical backdrop for his plots. He apparently picked the locale by flipping randomly through an atlas.

His popular novels, set in an imagined India, included The Perfect Murder (1964)—the first Ghote mystery, which won both the Gold Dagger in the UK and the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the US. In the late 1980s, this was being made into a motion picture by Ismail Merchant, which is why Keating found himself in India—to do a cameo in it. The film also starred Naseeruddin Shah in the lead role.

According to one report, Keating’s first words as he got off the plane in India were, “My God, it’s hot!"

The cover of an Inspector Ghote mystery.
The cover of an Inspector Ghote mystery.

“As I recall he had mint tea and I had coffee," says Sidharth Bhatia, columnist and author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story. “He had a very striking beard, like George Bernard Shaw, and he appeared gentle, mournful but with a twinkle in his eye. He had this habit of blending in silently while moving about and I found him very pleasant."

Today I’m having the same type of mint tea, still being served at the café that hasn’t changed much, and I’m chatting with Bhatia, a Samovar regular for over four decades. We try to reconstruct what else Keating experienced in the city.

Exactly how they came to meet is hard to recall, says Bhatia, but he suspects that somebody gave Keating his phone number.

Keating wanted to be shown around downtown, and Bhatia, a fan, was happy to help. He’s always felt that Mumbai is the perfect setting for detective novels, with its glamorous super rich contrasting with the extremely poor, and with once-sleazy areas like Colaba, its seedy bars catering to sailors and cheap hotels full of hippies. “Even Charles Sobhraj used to operate around here," quips Bhatia as he remembers the real-life serial killer who preyed on tourists. Colaba is of course more gentrified now, but there are still conmen. “This is a city made to be written about, but it has had no strong tradition of detective literature. It took Harry Keating to do it. Inspector Ghote is a superb character and in the absence of competition, Keating did a fine job."

How do you think he managed to write about the city before he actually came here?

“I understand that he studied Indian newspapers in the British library, and I think he laid his hands on a police manual. He was also helped by a British adman who used to live here in the 1960s."

While talking, Bhatia takes me around the Kala Ghoda district where he and Keating walked all those years ago. He’s knowledgeable about the buildings, the history of the streets, and which shops have been there for ages. We stop at a watch repairman’s stall where he chats up the owner to find out about the market for old wristwatches.

“I’ve always felt that the soul of the city is here. Kala Ghoda is a prime spot to set a murder mystery." When we get to Dalal Street, he says, “Keating wanted to visit the stock exchange. At that time there was a boom in the market and I had connections so we got to meet the bosses. I remember going to the top floor and asking him if he planned to have some character in his next novel pushed down from up there."

After all, falling down 29 storeys would make for quite a spectacular murder that could be made to look like a suicide. But Keating didn’t reveal his thoughts.

At the end of the day, Bhatia got one of Keating’s books signed by the author. He laments: “Later it got stolen from me. But I have my suspicions about who took it."

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

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