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Nisha Singh

Nisha Singh is a crime fiction enthusiast, an emotional logician and the creator of detective Bhrigu Mahesh. She has written three books in the series which includes, 'The Witch of Senduwar, 'The Return of Damayanti' and 'The Difficult Tenants', that features the great detective and his scribe, Sutte. Her fourth book in the series, 'The Dacoits of Cheelpur' is also set to release soon.

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The Witch of Senduwar

Forensic Psychology and How to Be “Literary”: Nisha Singh on Her Bhrigu Mahesh Series

09/17/19

Nisha Singh is the creator of the Bhrigu Mahesh literary mystery/detective series, set in northern India but with international appeal.

She was inspired by Sherlock Holmes’ logical examination of circumstantial evidence, but decided to also explore the concept of forensic psychology in detective fiction and also its implications for real-life crime solving. She believes that at some point psychology may well become an exact science and advances this view through her books.

Cristina Deptula: Several reviewers have compared your two male lead characters to Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Do you think this comparison is accurate? How are Bhrigu and Sutte like, or unlike, the famous British pair?

Nisha Singh: I knew that this comparison would arise because Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have become the quintessential detective pair and for more than a century, mystery fans have identified either directly or indirectly, every detective with them, that has been created after them. Many mystery writers over the millennium have been inspired by this British pair and I frankly confess that am among them too. While reading the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I was awed and impressed by his eccentricities and the genius of deduction that he possessed but as I matured and read those stories again, I found that where they were perfect as far as reading the physical clues was concerned, they were quite inadequate in using those clues which we now call circumstantial evidence. That was the biggest flaw in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

While investigating, it’s the standard procedure to lift circumstantial evidence like fingerprints and other residues and Sherlock Holmes helped revolutionize the field of forensic science but it fell short on how those clues should be used. Circumstantial evidence is just the first line of investigation and from there you have to dig much deeper or else it would end up in a botched-up investigation. Therein lies their biggest shortcoming. Sherlock Holmes’s methods rely almost completely on physical clues and not in the least on mental ones.

My detective, Bhrigu Mahesh, on the other hand, looks similar in temperament to Sherlock Holmes because he has a genius too but he is much more aware of himself than Sherlock Holmes and hence he is more mature. He understands that physical evidence just scratches the surface of a mystery and it should always corroborate the find and not dominate it. Bhrigu Mahesh goes behind the mind of his every suspect and lifts mental cues and that’s the reason why my every character is so well developed. Therefore, I should add that my books are a study in Psychology as if it were an exact science with no room for doubt.

In a nutshell, Sherlock Holmes was the genius of the physical realm of an investigation, whereas Bhrigu Mahesh is the genius of the mental realm and through him, I have tried to prove that the former should always follow the latter and not vice-versa.

As far as their scribes are concerned, Sutte is like Watson in the sense that he appreciates the great talent of his dear friend too, but he isn’t a sidekick. He understands his friend and offers help and assurance every time that his friend reaches a crisis. Hence, he is as indispensable to Bhrigu as Bhrigu is to him.

CD: You’re known for your well-rounded characters. What do you think makes the detective character interesting? How do you create original characters without falling into stereotypes? (i.e. brilliant but socially inept, etc?)

NS: My characters are well-rounded because, as I said before, it is imperative to my story. If the characters aren’t fully developed, lifting of mental cues would be impossible.

The character of the detective is made interesting by his strong personality and also by the methods that he employs to investigate. My detective, Bhrigu Mahesh, studies his suspects thoroughly and his scribe Sutte, studies him. For him, his friend carries a world in himself and he is on this exciting journey to unravel him. Hence, he devotes a lot of time writing about his every action and expression in a hope to understand his complex thought processes which he finds fascinating.

My characters are inspired from real life and hence they can never be stereotypical. Let’s discuss the nature of the word- “stereotype” A simple answer is when something gets repeated many a time, its gets stereotyped but I think this definition is untrue and can be used only for things that lack any depth. When the stories or characters are fuelled by your own observation and experience, it can never be stereotypical.

As some things, inevitably, could run parallel that could make it seem like it is the same but if someone feels that way for an original work, they haven’t read it thoroughly or have failed to look for the beautiful differences because they were too occupied looking for similarities. This bias is in the reader’s mind that gives rise to this feeling of an original work adhering to a stereotype. If my readers think this way about my books, I would request them to remove any biases from their minds which lets them concentrate on their preconceived notions. A broad-minded person with perspicacity and depth would never fail to see the real personality of my detective that runs throughout the narrative.

CD: Psychologically, are there any indicators that someone’s likely to be innocent, or have committed crimes? What indicates that someone’s lying or telling the truth? Do you agree with Bhrigu Mahesh that human psychology will eventually become an exact science?

NS: Yes, we can ascertain whether someone is lying or telling the truth by observing them and understanding their psychology. Every human brain has their own programming, as Bhrigu calls it, and if we are able to run that program, we will understand how he or she will behave in a particular situation. But this is a complicated program and every human evolves during their course of life which makes decoding it a very challenging task. It’s very important to understand how every brain is unique and similar too and is also given to be influenced by factors both internal and external. Hence, it’s important that we first try to understand the common factors and then specialize in that knowledge with our own personal observations. Statistical studies that are carried out by psychologists should be supplemented by individual studies that will help to get to the mother lode of this knowledge. Only then will we be able to make headway into understanding human beings, their behaviors and the patterns inherent in those behaviors. These patterns will then tell us all that we need to know.

When we get to that point, we’ll be able to conclusively say if someone is lying or not but for now, let’s hope that the lie-detector is still working!

Yes, I agree with Bhrigu that Psychology will become an exact science one day but we still have a long way to go and brilliant psychologists like Bhrigu Mahesh are rare to find. I have applied psychology in real life in order to understand the motivations of people and what influences their behavior. If we keep pushing the frontiers of this science which is still in its infancy, we’ll be able to make discoveries that will help us understand ourselves better. Evolution will then be just round the corner.

At this point, I would like to draw attention to the word- ‘Psychology’. It is made up of two words, Psyche and logic. Combining both of them together, it would translate to the logical study of the mind. What needs to be done is to understand that if we have to understand our psyches we will have to approach it as logically as possible because logic never leaves room for doubt. Aristotle’s book, ‘Prior Analytics’ first explained the importance of logic and scientific reasoning. It has also a chapter that deals with the study of the mind and how it should be accomplished scientifically. For me, he was the world’s greatest psychologist and his works have laid the foundation for approaching the study of the mind through reason and perception. Today, psychologists are more focused on statistical studies to diagnose human behaviors and hence they leave great margins for error. The field of psychology should be studied like an exact science and only then it would one day become one. This can only be achieved logically, as Aristotle believed.

CD: How do you successfully incorporate comic relief into a story with tragedy, where people get murdered? How do you place the humor in ways that don’t trivialize the tragic events?

NS: Humor can never trivialize any tragedy. In fact, it only helps augment it. From the beginning of time, humor and tragedy have been considered two things that are mutually exclusive. Even Shakespeare used to write chapters quite separate from the main narrative which he used to call “comic-relief”. I know that this practice has stemmed from the fact that everyone believes tragedy can never exist where there is humor and this is very untrue.

My books are a work of fiction but they have been plotted to stay as parallel to real life as possible because it is a scientific work; the study of mind. As everything inspired from reality, humor is something that we come across on a daily basis and it gives us relief from our own problems as we enjoy the mirth of the moment. I have seen witty people entertaining their friends in the midst of great tragedies and I am sure that during the two most devastating events in history, The World Wars, the soldiers and their families must have tried to hold on to humor much more than they did otherwise. What I mean to say is that humor doesn’t come at the expense of tragedy but it is a thing just like oxygen. It is present in the atmosphere, as people need it to survive. And when there is tragedy, the reliance on humor increases manifold.

My first-person narrator Sutte is a satirist and hence he is naturally witty. He sees the world through the lens of humor and even in the most mundane details he sees something or the other that tickles his funny bone. Bhrigu, unlike Sherlock Holmes, doesn’t stop him from expressing himself and thus he writes in the very way that he sees the world. Yes, he goes to places that are shrouded in mystery and hence tragedy lurks round the corner but still his mental makeup allows him to find relief there too. This is the reason that he is indispensable to his friend Bhrigu Mahesh. His ability to see humor in the most stressful of times, provides relief to the great detective and makes him focus more on the investigation at hand which can sometime get too much even for him.

It’s high time that humor shouldn’t be segregated from the main narrative to make it look “serious”. Life is full of light moments and hence despite the greatest of tragedies we see the light of hope to move on. If serious writing means the death of humor, it would be akin to saying that your light moments would be the death of your serious pursuits. If the colors of real life are so complex, its time that fiction should follow suit or else it would suffer genre segregation that would only make it more fiction and less real.

CD: What makes a detective novel, literary fiction, as opposed to those mystery and novels that are genre fiction?

NS: First of all, I would like to say that it is wrong and confusing to remove genre fiction from literary fiction. Literary fiction is a broader term which includes several genres and so separating them makes no sense at all. We just give genre fiction a name to make it more specific, that’s all. Literary fiction is an umbrella term only and should never be used to alienate genres that fall within it.

Literary fiction is the creation of complex characters that make us feel alive by bringing us closer to our own emotions that sometimes need words for expression. Also, we are a part of our surroundings and hence imagery plays a vital role in bringing out our own identities. So, characters and imagery are the two pillars on which rest the works of great literature, be it any genre.

CD: Was there a real-life event or place that inspired the story of The Witch of Senduwar?

NS: Yes. This story was inspired by a real-life event that happened in Senduwar, which is an actual village in the Rohtas district of Bihar. An excavation of a mound found buried treasure and during the monsoon, the odds and ends of that treasure got washed away and seemed to rain gold on the inhabitants. Many used inverted umbrellas to siphon this washed up gold and one or two of the natives got a good influx of money when they sold this gold in the market. I was so amused by this event that I decided to weave the net of my first mystery around this incident.

CD: If you were to set Bhrigu and Sutte’s adventures somewhere else in the world, where would you choose? How much does location matter to your story?

NS: Well, this is a very interesting question and something that I have pondered myself. Bhrigu and Sutte are universal and they can thrive in any location but I have used the villages and cities of India as the location for my stories as I was born and brought up here. Hence, I am acquainted with its cultural diversity which makes for a colorful and sensual writing. I only use the elements that I find captivating; right from the mean streets to lofty temples, and then graciously blend them in Bhrigu’s and Sutte’s world.

If I were to set Bhrigu’s and Sutte’s adventures somewhere else in the world then I would select a place which has a great culture. I have always been fascinated with South America which is replete with its mysterious, indigenous tribes and the great Amazon River which floods every year but still the natives depend on it for their livelihood. I would love to set one of my stories among the Amazonian tribes like the Waodani people who love their forest and enjoy a unique lifestyle.

South America has always been an exotic place to me, wrapped in mysteries and its every country has a unique culture that’s very interesting to read. From the legendary mountains of Peru where the Incas lived to the multicultural Brazil, everything about this continent is very appealing. I have also read that there are many indigenous tribes living in total isolation there than anywhere else in the world which only goes on to add mystery to this strange continent which is ruled by the awe-inspiring Amazon. I would love to explore Latin America’s many hidden secrets, art and culture by choosing locations that reflect its beautiful soul.

Morocco is also a charming place which is still steeped in old values and its Andalusian culture has always held a great fascination for me. I have read many travel articles about this place and how it has always been a sweet spot for writers like Tennessee Williams. It has also played a pivotal role in the creation of modern literary works of great value and Marrakesh is known for its glorious libraries and book shops. The old-world charm that is reflected in its villages is unparalled and if I ever get a chance in future, I would surely like to visit and explore Morocco whenever I am in need of fresh inspiration.

From my choice of locations, it must have become abundantly clear that for me, mystery is a very important factor. Fascinating cultures make for a unique reading experience and they blend seamlessly with elements of mystery fiction, adding charm and sensuality to the stories. Hence, any place which has an old-world charm and has still retained its roots will become ideal as a background for mystery novels. 

CD: Who are some other authors you admire, mystery writers or otherwise, and why?

NS: I am a great fan of Isaac Asimov. His accurate prediction of events based on the scientific knowledge of his time is unparalleled and hugely interesting too. I also admire the golden era of detective fiction as that era gave us some very interesting detectives. I like the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as he had created a bold template for the quintessential detective. I also like Edgar Allan Poe and his stories of Dupin, especially his short story, “The Purloined Letter”. We see the very first marvel of logic-based deduction in this story which has influenced countless mystery writers and has also gotten the gears of my brain to move as I admired and challenged it all at once.

Also, I like R. Austin Freeman and his character of Dr. Thorndyke with his perfect tools of deduction. His inverse detective stories are something that I have hugely enjoyed. I am also a fan of Jacques Futrelle and his detective, The Thinking Machine. His story, “The problem of Cell 13” is also a marvel in logical deduction which really thrilled me when I first read it as a teenager and also fuelled my desire to develop it even further.

I have read many mystery writers from the golden era of detective fiction, and I’ve seen authors like Anton Chekov, Mark Twain and P.G Wodehouse get inspired enough to try their hand at writing some. This only goes on to prove that mystery is something that no mortal can resist and if a detective is even more interesting that the mystery, well, it’s just icing on the cake.

CD: Why do you think so many authors have created mystery and detective books throughout time?

NS: The mystery genre has always been a compelling one because when executed well, they can captivate anyone. There is mystery everywhere and when one is solved, it leads to discovery and every new discovery introduces new knowledge. Hence, mystery has always been associated with the creation of new knowledge. Many great authors throughout time have dedicated their lives to writing in this genre because such stories are hugely entertaining and have an appeal not just for the readers but the creators too. There is a thrill in creating great characters/suspects who are a mystery to the readers and this room for doubt makes them rack their own brains in an effort to remove that doubt and reach their own conclusion. Hence, both the writers and readers are working together on a mystery but their intentions are different. One is creating the puzzle and scrambling the pieces while the other is busy collecting them and putting them in a neat order. This brain exercise is exhilarating; almost euphoric and hence like a potent drug, it is used again and again.

The genre of mystery is also appealing because it organizes the elements of fiction in a way that other genres can never achieve. For the creation of a brilliant mystery, it is very important that every ingredient is present in just the right amount or else the recipe for magic will never come alive on the pages. The work is technical and needs an expert to blend every element in order to create works of great fiction that captivates one and all.

For me, the charm lies in the creation of characters that are mysterious but real and to give a spin to real life experiences that charms readers and they are left wanting for more. I like many genres including science fiction but mystery is something that I love the most because it gives me the power to create an engaging plot where the reader has no option but to be glued till the last page, figuring out the mystery and connecting all the dots. Such a compelling reading experience can only be found with this genre and hence it has enjoyed such an overwhelming success form time immemorial. Also, it provides the framework to explore themes and issues of the modern world and also to explore complex ideas through the narratives of the characters.

Many authors have exploited this genre to use as a framework for telling their colorful and complex stories. No other genre provides such a support as this one and the fun of storytelling is magnified when the platform used is popular and enjoys mainstream success.

CD: In your opinion, what was the world’s first detective novel?

NS: Well, here the opinion may differ, but for me the world’s first detective novel was ‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins. Although, as far as creating a logical detective is concerned, Edgar Allan Poe was the pioneer but his were only three stories and he never attempted a novel. Collins was the first who introduced social commentary in his detective novels and thus laid the stone (pun intended) for the introduction of mystery genre into classic literature.

His plot is also attractive because it uses the Tippoo diamond of Seringapatnam. The plot is set in the east; Imperial India under Queen Victoria. India has always been the perfect location for mystery novels and Wilkie Collins also succumbed to this temptation by creating a work of detective fiction that is hailed as one of the finest that he ever produced in his lifetime.

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