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Delighted to have my first book signing at Goldsboro Books

Serial Killers and Licenses to Kill – The Search for the Other Me

The ‘other’ Ajay Chowdhury

I first heard about my notorious namesake in the mid-eighties when I was studying in Philadelphia. My classmate Darius asked me, “So have you heard about this other guy with your name who has been murdering people in India?” I hadn’t and in those pre-Google days, there was no quick and easy way for me to find out more. 

Twenty years later I was interviewing for a job at Disney. By now the internet was a thing and the recruiter had obviously done his research. The interview went well and at the end, he looked mildly uncomfortable and said, semi-joking, “So, you’re not that Ajay Chowdhury, are you? The serial killer?” I was confused for a moment then remembered Darius’ comment. I briefly contemplated saying, “Yes, I did kill a bunch of people when I was eighteen but that was just a youthful indiscretion,” but decided that it would be off-brand for Disney (this was before they owned the Avengers who think nothing of destroying entire cities in their quest to kill one villain) and just said, “No, that wasn’t me.” He noted something down and I didn’t get the job.

I went home and Googled ‘Ajay Chowdhury’ and discovered that my alter-ego wasn’t a serial killer but had procured victims for the real murderer – Charles Sobhraj. My initial reaction was mild chagrin – if someone infamous was going to share my name, I’d much prefer they were the real deal – the cold-blooded killer, the cold-eyed nightmare in the dark. The disappointment then metamorphosed into something I couldn’t quite place – and this is what has stayed with me since the first time I learned about my nefarious namesake. While the name Chowdhury is common (it means landlord, like Patel), my particular spelling is less so and I hadn’t come across anyone with the same spelling who wasn’t a relative. But to now discover that someone with exactly the same name had been terrorising tourists across Asia when I had been in my teens – well, that felt odd. Of course, there was no logical reason why it should – it was just a name, after all – but it led to some disquiet. 

I tried to find out more about him, but all I uncovered on the internet was a blurry picture of a chap with a neat black beard and a tie and the fact that he was Sobhraj’s second in command. Nothing about his background, where he was from, what had become of him or anything at all that made him a real person. So, there he rested, a wraith in a nightmare, perhaps some manifestation of my dark side.

A few years ago, I got a strange request on Facebook, it said “Ajay Chowdhury wants to be your friend”. At first, I thought it was a glitch of some sort. Then for a fleeting frisson I wondered if he had looked me up! I clicked on the profile to discover that it wasn’t my murderous doppelganger but another high-profile namesake – he runs the James Bond Fan Club. I met up with him for a coffee and discovered we were both intrigued by Sobhraj’s accomplice, although he seemed to have taken it far more in his stride than I had.

Last year I waited with anticipation to watch The Serpent and devoured it over just a few days when it finally aired. And there he was – very different to whom I’d expected. I had imagined a serious, slippery sort, luring tourists into his and Charles’ trap. Instead, as played by Amesh Edireweera he was this ebullient, fun loving, sexy guy who was out to have a good time and got trapped by Sobhraj’s sorcery. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether I liked this portrayal more or less than my vision but as the episodes progressed, I figured if I had to lend my name to the sidekick of a killer, I could choose worse than this one.

And Ajay Chowdhury might still be out there somewhere. Was he spotted in Germany in the mid-seventies as many articles suggest? Did he watch The Serpent and relive the terrible crimes he committed? Sobhraj is still alive in a Nepali jail, how often did Ajay think about the man who had defined his life? Most serial killers work alone – so what happens to the link between two people who had taken so many lives over so short a time? 

It still makes me shiver.

Writing The Waiter

Kolkata Police Headquarters at Lalbazar where Kamil works in The Waiter

I’d had the idea of a disgraced Kolkata cop working in an Indian restaurant for over a decade but it took the Harvill Secker/Bloody Scotland competition for new crime writers for me to start typing. Much to my delight and amazement I won the competition and finished the book. It is the first of a series which shows Kamil, initially a fish out of water in London, slowly regaining his confidence in his detection skills till he becomes a cop in the Met Police, going back to doing what he loves and is great at – solving crimes.

The book is a fun mix of humour and mystery with some great recipes for Indian food thrown in and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it and I am honoured that it has been optioned by the BBC to potentially make it into a TV series.

So, what’s the book about?

Kamil Rahman is a young detective in the Kolkata police force, working boring crimes and seeing a long, dull future ahead of him as he climbs the greasy pole. Then with one phone call – his fortune changes. He is put in charge of a high profile murder investigation – a Bollywood superstar has been found battered to death in his luxurious hotel room.

Excited by this chance to make his mark, Kamil soon finds out that things are not as straightforward as they seem. Why does the actor’s wife seem unconcerned her husband was having sex before he died? Why has the hotel’s CCTV stopped recording just before the crime? Why has the hotel manager’s niece been kidnapped? As Kamil digs deeper, he finds his own life is in danger – he is beaten up and told to lay off the case and his boss advises him to do the same. But his integrity keeps him going until, after a shootout in a warehouse, 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. He starts to get close to Anjoli, the daughter of the owner and the wounds of Kolkata slowly begin to heal as he settles into his new role. But then he is abruptly confronted by another death. The host of a party he is catering – a millionaire Indian industrialist – is murdered in his swimming pool. Against his will, Kamil is asked to investigate and he and Anjoli start to ask questions. There is no dearth of suspects – the millionaire’s new wife, thirty years younger, who stands to inherit everything. His jealous ex-wife and son. The Bollywood actress he was flirting with at the party.

As the case unfolds, Kamil discovers strange links to the murder he was working on in Kolkata. To his horror, he discovers he is being targeted again by the man who beat him up. Why has this stranger followed Kamil to London? Is Anjoli in danger as well? The murder races to a shocking denouement where Kamil and Anjoli have to decide between doing what is right and what is expedient.

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My favourite Indian Restaurant in London and the inspiration for Tandoori Knights in THE WAITER – Akash on Edgware Road

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Who knew buttering a turkey was so much fun….

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One of my favourite recipes is Madhur Jaffrey’s Lamb Biryani

I made Lamb Biryani to celebrate New Year’s Eve, 2020

This delicious lamb biryani is a special dish taken from Madhur Jaffrey’s TV series, Curry Nation. With powerful ingredients cassia leaves and green cardamom pods, this biryani is bursting with classic Indian flavours and is a great Saturday night takeaway alternative.

Ingredients

  • 250ml olive or sunflower oil
  • 2tbsp ghee
  • 3 cassia leaves or bay leaves
  • 5cm cassia bark or cinnamon stick
  • 8–10 black peppercorns
  • 7–8 cloves
  • 1 black cardamom pod, lightly crushed
  • 6–7 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
  • 1tsp crushed garlic
  • 1tsp peeled, finely grated root ginger
  • 450g boneless lamb, from shoulder or neck or both, cut into 2.5–4 cm pieces
  • 3 medium onions, about 450g, chopped
  • 500ml yogurt, lightly beaten until smooth
  • 4 hot green chillies, cut into 1 cm segments
  • A handful of chopped coriander leaves
  • A pinch of salt
  • 2 dried aloo Bukhara Persian prunes, if available (optional)
  • 450g basmati rice
  • Generous pinch of ground saffron
  • 1 capful kewda water

Method

  • Put the oil and ghee in a heavy-based 25 cm pan on a medium-high heat. When hot add the cassia leaves and bark, peppercorns, cloves, and both types of lightly crushed cardamom pods. Stir a few times, then add the garlic and ginger. Stir once or twice, then put in the meat. Stir and fry the meat for about five minutes, or until it is lightly browned. Now add the onions. Stir and cook, still over a medium-high heat, for about five minutes, or until the onions have softened.
  • Reduce the heat to low and stir in the yogurt. Add the green chillies, coriander leaves, 1 tsp of salt and the aloo Bukharas, if using. Keep stirring and bring to a vigorous simmer, reducing the heat to medium-low. Cover partially and cook, stirring now and then, for 25 mins.
  • Uncover, stir and cook for another 10–15 mins, or until the sauce is very thick and paste-like and the oil separates from the meat. Set aside, covered.
  • Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2. Rinse the rice in several changes of water, then leave to soak in ample fresh water for 15–20 mins. Drain and leave in the strainer.
  • Bring about 5 litres of water to a boil in a large pot, the kind you use for boiling pasta. When it is boiling rapidly, add 4 tsps of salt and stir. Set a colander in the sink.
  • Add the rice to the boiling water. Stir to separate the grains, cover partially and return to a boil. Boil the rice for five to six minutes, or until a grain, when pressed hard between the fingers, has only a thin hard core at the centre and breaks into two or three pieces. Drain quickly and leave in the colander.
  • Tilt the pot of meat and spoon out all the fat and oil into a small bowl. Pour half of this oil into a heavy-based 25 cm ovenproof pan that has a tight-fitting lid, and spread it out. Now spread half the rice over the oil.
  • Spoon all the meat over the rice. Sprinkle the saffron over the meat. Spread the remaining rice over the meat and then the remaining oil over the top of everything. End with the kewda water, sprinkling it over the top.
  • Cover tightly with foil and then the lid and place in the centre of the hot oven for 30–40 mins, or until the rice is cooked through. Mix very gently with a slotted spoon before serving.

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The India Connection panel at Bloody Scotland 2019 with Abir Mukherjee and Trisha Saklecha