An Indian eye dissects Switzerland’s dark side
Zurich native Vijay Kumar likes Indian whisky and his mother’s cooking. He is also a private detective for hire with an intimate knowledge of the city’s seamy underbelly.
The 34-year-old, VW Beetle-driving sleuth isn’t a real person though. He is the creation of Swiss crime writer Sunil Mann, whose mother emigrated from India when he was a boy.
“Vijay Kumar is not me,” the 43-year-old tells swissinfo.ch. “But we have a lot in common.”
They both share Indian roots, a fondness for Zurich’s seedy Langstrasse quarter and a reluctance to get married and settle down. The Mann-Kumar partnership has spanned five crime novels so far, with the sixth ready for release this summer. According to Mann, it is Kumar’s Indian background that sets him apart from the other fictional detectives on the market.
“Despite living in Switzerland, Kumar has to deal with Indian values, culture and politics and that brings some interesting tension to the books,” he says.
The burden of having a dual identity is something that Mann himself experienced growing up. His mother was working at a missionary school in the Indian state of Bihar when she was invited by a Swiss doctor to go to Switzerland to work as a nurse. The family settled in Zweisimmen in the canton of Bern and Mann grew up living in two worlds.
“My mother had created an Indian bubble in the house with Indian food, clothes and everything. Outside was Switzerland and it became normal to switch between these two cultures,” he says.
The writer incorporated some of this sense of belonging to two worlds into his fictional detective adding complexity to his character.
“There have also been some issues concerning foreigners in Switzerland recently and they touch Vijay Kumar and make him take sides,” says Mann, referring to recent national votes on limiting immigration and deporting foreign criminals.
Kumar’s Indian origins aren’t just another interesting layer but offers him certain professional advantages in his detective work as well.
“Vijay Kumar is not rooted in any one culture and that gives him some distance from which to look at things,” says Mann.
One of the things that Mann finds challenging is telling his story in first person from Kumar's perspective. To get under the skin of a detective Mann consults with his contact in the Zurich police and has spoken to real private investigators.
He also gives great importance to using real places in his books which makes them popular with locals and gives the story a sense of place. But it can also be a double-edge sword.
“When I describe a location that really exist there are some readers who go there to check if for example the staircase has 12 or 13 stairs,” he says.
He is sometimes asked to give tours of the cafés, restaurants and alleys featured in his novels. But gentrification and rising property prices have affected what was once a shunned part of Zurich and some of these places have been forced to shut down.
Zurich to Mumbai
Mann’s first Vijay Kumar crime novel Fangschuss (Kill Shot), was published in German when he was 38. It sold around 12,000 copies.
“It has done quite well for the German-speaking market,” says Aletta Wieczorek, editor at Dortmund-based publisher Grafit, which publishes Mann. “The idea of an Indian detective is exotic for European readers but it manages to combine a crime story with humour, which is not typical.”
Five years on, Zurich remains the background to his novels but Mann gives prominence to areas that most people avoid and have little knowledge of.
“By placing my detective in this former red light district instead of a touristy part of Zurich it showcases a different side of the city,” he says.
But Mann has recently stepped out of his comfort zone. His sixth novel Schattenschnitt (Shadow Cutter) will be released in August and will have a strong Indian connection - around a third of the plot is set in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai.
Mann has visited Mumbai a few times and used his memories and Google maps to ensure his descriptions are as authentic as possible. He sees parallels between the Indian and Swiss financial capitals.
“Both Zurich and Mumbai have this gap between the rich and not-so rich even though it is greater in Mumbai,” he says.
Mann’s books are only available in German and French but he hopes this will change and that Indians can read his work.
“I am aware that India could be a big market for my work but it is really difficult to find a publisher that is willing to invest in translating my books into English,” he says.
For now, he is happy being a part-time writer and currently works five months of the year as a flight steward for Swiss International Air Lines.
“For a long time I wanted to be a full-time writer. Now, I am not so sure because the breaks are very important and it is good for the writing.”
He’s currently working on a children’s book but the crime thrillers will remain his bread and butter. He enjoys setting challenges for Kumar to solve and scouting for locales to use in his books.
“As long as I’m having fun and people keep buying the books, I don't see why I have to stop,” he says.
Do you know of any crime novels set in Switzerland?
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