The first meeting with Puja Changoiwala will always remain as a special memory in my heart. We were co-panelists on a discussion about ‘Women Writing Crime’ in the Women Writer’s Festival organised by SheThePeople. Her humility and warmth are amazing and we became good friends immediately. It was much later that I came to know that she was an award-winning author and not only the recipient of an MA in Journalism from University of Westminster, London, but is also the recipient of Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award, 2018, and Westminster Alumni Awards – Outstanding Achievement. She has recently been shortlisted for the International Young Author Awards, UAE.
Read on about her journey.
- True Crime sounds interesting and challenging. What drew you to this genre?
In 2006, I embarked upon my academic training to become a journalist – a culmination of a long-held childhood ambition. It was during this Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media, in 2008, that Mumbai witnessed the 26/11 terror attacks. I was only 19 then, and had no business being at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, where six explosions had taken place, and where several citizens were still being held hostage. But I lied to my parents, and went there anyway. I knew it was a risk, but I couldn’t fight that inexplicably strong desire – I wanted to see one dead terrorist, at least one of those ten, who had killed 160 of us. I couldn’t see one, but I returned home, feeling even determined – this time, to become a sincere, industrious journalist, and affect change. Journalism led me to crime reporting, which, in turn, paved way for true crime writing.
- Who is your writing mentor? How did this person influence you?
My bureau chief at Hindustan Times, Stavan Desai. He was a prolific crime reporter, who produced some of the most outstanding journalistic work in his time. He was a huge source of inspiration, and encouragement.
- Who are the ‘true crime’ authors whom you feel have done justice to this genre?
India has only a handful of true crime writers, and the genre is coming of age here only now. As for foreign true crime writers, I really admire the work of Truman Capote and Ann Rule.
- How has your profession as a ‘Senior Crime Correspondent’ helped you to research and write ‘The Front Page Murders’?
The book is the true story of a serial killer, Vijay Palande, who would befriend, murder and hack Bollywood aspirants for wealth in Mumbai, 2012. I covered his series of felonies while I was working with Hindustan Times as a crime correspondent. I was quite stunned by his intelligence, his meticulous planning, and almost flawless execution of his devious plans. Two years later, I quit HT, and wrote a book about him.
- When we met last time, you had told me about how you sat across a serial killer and interviewed him for the book. Can you please share that experience and your challenges and emotions with the readers?
The serial killer, of course, was Vijay Palande. The experience, meanwhile, was quite mundane – as if I were speaking to any other lay person. But after a few interactions with him, I realised that that was the man’s masterstroke – his perfect garb of ordinariness. Horror wears many faces, and the most lethal mask is that of ordinariness. Posing as an average Joe is the perfect way to gain a victim’s trust, only to abuse it in the bloodiest ways. And Palande had mastered the art.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt, formal pants, Nike shoes – even when he was brought from prison to be produced as an undertrial in court, he looked like someone you could trust. He spoke flawless English with the body language of an affluent, well-read man. There were many times during our interactions when I wondered if this polished man really was a serial killer, but that, again, was his alarming genius.
- The biggest challenge while reporting or writing true crime is to make sure that your judgments do not cloud the reader’s experience. How do you do this?
It’s very difficult to not form an opinion when you’re so invested in a story, especially when there’s blood involved. The only way out is to dig as deep as you can on both sides – get versions of every stakeholder in the story. For example, in my book, there are three main accused, and I’ve interviewed each one of them. I have incorporated their opinions, their back stories, what made murderers out of them, and what kept them hooked to the bloody trade.
- ‘Writing as a profession’ or ‘writing as a passion’? What would your advice and why?
Writing, to me, is a passion, and hence, inevitably, a profession. I believe passion should guide every individual’s professional choices. And once that happens, you don’t have to work a single day for the rest of your life.
- What is the worst thing that you were asked as a writer?
To add more “masala” to a non-fiction manuscript!
- Describe your writing routine.
My writing process entails extreme isolation. For writing The Front Page Murders, I’d moved to my father’s holiday home, about 100 kilometers away from Mumbai. I was living alone, had uninstalled every social network from my phone, and had disconnected the television. I wanted to create a zone, where all I could think of was the book, its characters, their stories. For weeks on end, I’d stay in that apartment and write – until I couldn’t write anymore. I genuinely believe the essence of writing lies not only in knowing when to write, but also in knowing when to stop.
- What is one thing that any newbie writer must do?
I’d say write stories that are a part of you, which you’re a part of – something you know about, or something you’d like to learn about. Write stories, which compel you to write, which you just couldn’t stay without writing. At the onset, find a story that you’re passionate about, and then, like Hemingway said, “sit down at that typewriter and bleed.”
- If you could name only one favourite author and one favourite book, what would that be?
I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction/true crime in the past two years, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, and Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano.
- What is a genre that you can never see yourself write?
- Name one lesser-known writer that you would hugely recommend.
I recently attended the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavik, and have been reading quite a few Icelandic writers since. The Nordic nation has produced some prolific writers, and many know about Halldór Laxness, the country’s only Nobel laureate. But even their contemporary writers like Andri Magnason and Hallgrímur Helgason are brilliant. As for crime writers in Iceland, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is really worth reading.
- What do you prefer – writing books or writing articles? Why?
That’s a tough one – I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give up on either!
- So, what’s next?
I’m currently in the research phase for my next book, also a work of non-fiction and true crime based in Bombay of the nineties.
As a journalist, I contribute to many publications in India and abroad. I’m highly invested in writing news features on various issues, which I feel most strongly about. You may read some of my stories here:
- Nowhere safe for ‘Dirty’ money after sex workers’ bank closes in Mumbai
- Filthy lucre: Scavenging grime and sewage for gold on Mumbai’s streets
- India’s killer ‘godmen’ and their sacrificial children
- Absolute hell: The toxic outpost where Mumbai’s poorest are ‘sent to die’
- The Indian women consulting with astrologers to time their childbirths
- Prisoners of unconscienced
Puja Changoiwala is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, and author of the critically-acclaimed true crime book, ‘The Front Page Murders: Inside the Serial Killings that Shocked India.’ This book, Puja’s debut work as an author, is the recipient of unanimous acclaim from the most reputed quarters of the country.
As an independent journalist, Puja contributes to some of the most esteemed news publications in India, UK, and North America. She writes about the intersections of gender, human rights, crime, development and social justice in India. Her writings have featured across the likes of The Guardian, The Hindu, BBC, The Washington Post, Mint, Al Jazeera, Mumbai Mirror, South China Morning Post, The Wire, and VICE, among many others.
Previously a correspondent with a London-based magazine, Puja has also worked as a senior crime reporter with Hindustan Times, India’s second largest English daily. At Hindustan Times, she won eight in-house awards for her outstanding journalism, covering stories of Mumbai’s sins and their casualties.
Puja holds an MA in Journalism from University of Westminster, London, and is also the recipient of Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award, 2018, and Westminster Alumni Awards – Outstanding Achievement. She has recently been shortlisted for the International Young Author Awards, UAE, and is currently at work on her second book – also a true story of crime and grime in India’s financial powerhouse.