Revamping a long-marinated idea led to tech founder Ajay Chowdhury winning the first Harvill Secker-Bloody Scotland prize. He talks to Craig Sisterson about curries and crime.
The aromas of fried onions, garlic, and ginger perfume the air as pot lids bang and colourful spices are tossed into simmering concoctions in a cramped kitchen in Brick Lane. The chefs at Tandoori Knights certainly know what they're doing as they craft mutton biryani, tandoori chicken, makhani daal. The same can't be said for the wait staff. Kamil Rahman lays out gleaming cutlery and fumbles with napkins as he watches passersby stroll rainy streets.
"Keep Calm and Curry On" exclaim the menus.
Two months in – the British authorities think Kamil is "visiting" – he still can't properly twist the napkins into the shape of a helmet, as his boss Saibal wants. And he still can't forget the mess he made of his life in Kolkata. Saibal is an old friend of Kamil's father, and threw him a lifeline.
When Saibal spontaneously adds Kamil to the roster for a splashy 60th birthday bash the restaurant is catering for Rakesh Sharma, another "old friend" who lives in a mansion among the Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs on "Billionaire's Row" in Hampstead Heath, neither have any idea Kamil's old life is about to come crashing into his new one. That the disgraced Kolkata detective will once again be asked to investigate a high-profile murder.
Maybe this time, he'll get it right.
"I've had the idea for, oh God, 15 years now," says Ajay Chowdhury, author of moreish crime debut The Waiter. "But the original idea, which changed a lot, was a chef from Bangladesh working in a curry house in London, solving crimes based on things he remembered from Bangladesh. It was originally going to be like Miss Marple solving crimes based on stuff that happens in her little village. It, ah, obviously moved on a lot more from that."
Chowdhury, a tech entrepreneur who's been founder or CEO of several massively successful startups (whose values grew to nine-plus figures and were sold to the likes of Apple and Microsoft), thinks the idea behind The Waiter niggled at him for so long for two reasons.
"One was the feeling that in a restaurant, as a waiter or chef, you get to see so many people," he says. "When you see people in a restaurant, you're often seeing very unguarded moments: people who've had an argument, who are on a second date, who are conducting business. Or people getting drunk at 9. I liked the idea of someone really observant watching all of this then thinking about what the lives of these people were really like. It wasn't a big jump to: 'That's kind of what a detective does, picking up clues and thinking about people and their motivations.'"
After Chowdhury's original concept sat on low simmer for years, he finally got to work on his novel, thanks to the prodding of his wife, and Kamil Rahman emerged. A promising Kolkata cop whose career comes crashing down, only to find himself arm-twisted into undertaking an unofficial investigation alongside Anjoli, his new boss' precocious daughter.
The duo's amateur sleuthing brings up bad memories of the Bollywood murder case that ended Kamil's career and he soon finds that while he's tried to forget his past, it hasn't forgotten him.
The other reason, says Chowdhury, that he could never get the idea behind The Waiter out of his head, was that he really wanted to write about the East End of London.
"I grew up in Calcutta, and you know Brick Lane, that whole area, I thought was just ripe fodder for a fantastic crime novel," he says. "I wanted to see a detective who was a bit more like me. I'd been a fish out of water in London when I first came here, although that was a long time ago. Someone who missed home, who missed the food in Calcutta; all those things came together."
They came together thanks to Chowdhury's wife, who saw the Harvill Secker-Bloody Scotland search for new, underrepresented voices in British crime writing. "She said, 'Why don't you enter this?' I said, 'Why not, I need something to get me to write this idea I've had for a while."
The competition, open to BAME authors (Black, Asian, and minority ethnicity), required Chowdhury to submit 10,000 words of a manuscript and a synopsis of the whole novel.
"As I started writing, I realised I knew nothing about Bangladesh," says Chowdhury, with a chuckle. "I decided to set it in Kolkata and moving him to Kolkata there's no point in him being a chef, so I made him a detective. So, the germ of the idea changed a lot, writing for the prize."
Chowdhury loved reading classic mysteries from Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse and H.R.F. Keating as a child growing up in India. He first wanted to study literature at university, before being directed towards economics by his father. When he sat down to write what became The Waiter, memories of his love of Keating's Inspector Ghote also influenced the change.
"Inspector Ghote was a great detective, an Indian detective at a time there weren't any Indian detectives in books, but Keating wrote the first 10 Inspector Ghote books without ever going to India - and there was no internet! I just thought, 'I can't do that, I've never been to Bangladesh.'"
So Kamil Rahman, Kolkata cop-turned-Brick Lane waiter, was born.
Rahman's a fascinating hero, and combined with other intriguing characters, compelling action, and vivid scene-setting – not to mention some mouthwatering food references – it's easy to see why the judges of the Harvill Secker-Bloody Scotland prize were enamoured with The Waiter.
Chowdhury was "completely flabbergasted" to win, then it struck him what that meant.
"I kind of went 'Christ, what the hell am I going to do now?'" he says, chuckling. "It was easy rattling off three chapters. I had written a children's book that came out four or five years ago."
Talking to Chowdhury, who pursued his creative passions the past few decades as a theatre director in London alongside his tech entrepreneurship, he continually emphasises all the help many others gave him to hone and improve The Waiter. His prize including mentoring sessions with award-winning Scottish-Bengali historical mystery writer Abir Mukherjee, and he had "just the most wonderful editors at Harvill Secker, who were very kind and very, very helpful."
Although he was sad to have to "kill your darlings" with one particular scene detailing the eye-opening autopsy practices in India, where doctors won't do post-mortems. Instead, they get the hospital cleaner to do the cutting, using basic tools, while the doctor observes.
Mukherjee helped a lot, says Chowdhury, picking him up on his theatrical tendencies. "My first few drafts were 80 per cent dialogue because that's what I'm used to from theatre. Abir was great – 'you need to put a few descriptions in, it's not a play', and how to manage pace and tension."
While some may see Chowdhury's creative pursuits, in theatre directing and now crime writing, as vastly different to the analytical, logical focus of his economics studies and successful business career, Chowdhury himself sees plenty of crossover.
"Certainly, in the tech world and with the kind of stuff I've done, being on the board of Shazam and funding various companies, there's a massive amount of creativity that goes into that," he says. "At the end of the day, I like building stuff. That's what I've learned about myself. I like creating something that wasn't there before, whether it's a play, a book, or a company."
The act of creation is what turns him on, says Chowdhury, regardless of format.
"To produce a play and see 500 people in the audience moved by it or clapping, or to help create something like Shazam and see a billion people around the world are using this thing. Or hopefully to write The Waiter and find a lot of people, it moved them or touched them, or they found it funny. There's no feeling like that in the world."
The Waiter, by Ajay Chowdhury (Harvill Secker, $37), is out now.