In the kitchen, Maya and the three under-chefs were busy with the night’s dinner. The smell of fried onions, garlic and ginger filled the air, and the sounds of sizzling and percussive tin lids created a hypnotic rhythm as heaps of aromatic spices were tossed into the pots – orange turmeric, yellow heeng, red chilli powder, cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, cinnamon. I loved these aromas. The scent reminded me of home in Kolkata, watching Ma cook my favourite dishes – Ilish masher jhol, hilsa, the bony but wonderfully unctuous fish, with mustard; Shukto, vegetables cooked in milk; fluffy, flaky deep fried luchis to mop up the gravy; luscious Kathi rolls from Nizam’s . . . a pang of longing for the life I’d left behind hit me.From The Waiter, by Ajay Chowdhury
As did most children of my age, I grew up in India reading the holy trinity – Blyton, Christie and Wodehouse. Not only did they take me to the exciting world of pre-war England, they also opened my eyes to food I’d never heard of – midnight feasts, scones, tongue sandwiches (tongue!! Who ate tongue?), all washed down with lashings of ginger beer. To me, a kid living in Calcutta in the sixties and seventies, these dishes seemed impossibly exotic. So began the intertwined relationship of food and literature in my mind. I remember a strange sense of excitement when I read a Sherlock Holmes story where he ate a plate of chicken curry – finally something I was familiar with.
When I moved to Philadelphia to study in the eighties, I found that there were no Indian restaurants in the vicinity, so I had to learn to cook. My guide was the classic, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking and my copy, well-thumbed and liberally stained, has been with me ever since. (I should add I’ve tracked down out-of-print copies for my daughters to see them through life so they will never be without their dad’s Kashmiri Rogan Josh in times of need.)
As my passion for crime literature grew, a character formed in my mind – a detective who was also a cook. After all, solving a murder was a bit like deconstructing a dish into its individual ingredients – if you worked backwards from the finished product, you could figure out how it was done.
This idea stayed with me for many years until a few years ago, when my wife showed me a tweet from Harvill Secker and Bloody Scotland announcing a competition for debut BAME crime writers. She told me to have a go, so I did, and The Waiter was born.
The story centres on Kamil, a young detective from Kolkata who is given his first big break when a Bollywood superstar has been found battered to death in his luxurious hotel room. Excited by the opportunity to make his mark, Kamil soon realises things are not as straightforward as they seem, and he finds himself enmeshed in a dangerous web of corruption that puts his life in danger. His integrity keeps him going until he pushes a little too hard and is thrown out of the police force in disgrace. Looking for a new start, Kamil moves to London where he gets a job as a waiter in a small restaurant in the East End, but when the host of a party he is catering is murdered in his mansion, Kamil can’t resist putting his underused skills to work and running his own, unofficial, investigation.
While the book is a fun murder mystery, the tastes, textures, and aromas of the delicious food I was raised on play a central role; partly because of how, as a child, the descriptions of their teatime treats brought the Famous Five to life for me, but also because I remembered how much I had missed good Indian food when I was doing my MBA in the US. The sensory memories of food are amongst the most powerful we have, and I really wanted to harness this – if I could make people feel hungry while reading the book – well that would be quite an achievement.
Ajay Chowdhury is the winner of the inaugural Harvill Secker and Bloody Scotland Crime Writing competition. He is a tech entrepreneur and theatre director who lived the first third of his life in India and then moved to London, where he cooks experimental meals for his wife and daughters. His first children’s book, Ayesha and the Firefish, was published in 2016 and The Waiter is his debut crime thriller.
The Waiter is out now.