Shobha Nihalani talks to Matt Fleming about her native India, the literary scene in Hong Kong and everything in between
There are plenty of authors in Hong Kong who hail from, well, Hong Kong. And there’s a handful of writers from the UK, the USA and Canada in this city too. But India hasn’t been particularly well represented in the past. However now, with writers like Anita Moorjani, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar and kids’ author Bhakti Mathur, times are changing. And the next in line for local success is Shobha Nihalani. The Goa-born writer is bringing a distinctive Indian flavour to the Hong Kong thriller fiction scene – and it could be a recipe for international acclaim.
Nihalani covers the classic ingredients of murder, mystery and passion in her writing – but it’s all seasoned with the spice of Indian culture. The 47-year-old mother, who settled in Hong Kong 23 years ago, started out as a freelance writer for a variety of publications but, over the past decade, she has progressed to short stories and now novels. Her first was the well-received Karmic Blues in 2005. But her new offering has taken her to the next level.
The Silent Monument was published in Hong Kong earlier this year and it has already garnered much attention. Nihalani tells Time Out she was never expecting this sort of rapid acclaim. “It is gratifying and, in a way, encouraging since I am my own worst critic,” she says. “I love reading popular fiction – mostly thrillers and conspiracy theories – and I had to write one of my own mysteries with an Indian context and include social, political and cultural issues within the plot.”
The novel is about an ancient artefact – a scroll – which has been discovered in a hidden chamber of the Taj Mahal. “In India, a small issue can escalate into a big conflict,” says Nihalani. “And, in this case, the scroll is the trigger. A widow, Manzil, comes into possession of this scroll and it turns her life upside down. Manzil is a tough, strong-willed protagonist and she does not let anyone influence her. She alone will decide the fate of the scroll.”
Nihalani calls The Silent Monument a ‘fast-paced story’, which, for a busy Hongkonger, she says is a ‘quick read’. “Locals would also find it interesting because it covers issues regarding heritage monuments,” she says. “Hong Kong has many historical buildings that need to be protected and maintained as heritage sites. Similarly, India is culturally and historically rich. If you visit India, you can’t miss the ancient structures and monuments that co-exist alongside glossy high-rise buildings – a juxtaposition that exists in Hong Kong too. And the fact that these old structures are symbols of our ancient culture hits home how important it is to protect and restore them.”
When it comes to origin, Nihalani calls herself both a Hong Kong and Indian author. She has never broken ties with her ‘Indian-ness’ but she can ‘look from the outside in’ while living here. “Hong Kong is a global village where literary life is concerned,” she says. “The Man Asian Literary Festival, the book fairs, the Young Writers’ Award, literary festivals, book clubs and writers’ groups are great opportunities for creatives to showcase their work. There are many talented writers in Hong Kong and they are from all walks of life.”
It’s been a thrilling ride for Nihalani so far and there are more thrills to come: “I’m definitely on a roll with thrillers,” she says. “I’m going to write more. I plan to write some crime fiction as well. I’m currently working on a trilogy called NINE. The first book, NINE – Curse of the Kalingan, will be released early next year with Penguin India.” In that case, be it in Hong Kong or India, there are plenty more thrills to come…
The Silent Monument is published by Tara Press, Delhi, priced $99.