Monday, August 2, 2010

The Funda Behind Indian Detectives, British Authors and Megacities

What’s the “funda” behind India’s Most Private Investigator, beauty parlors and spirituality camps?

Ask British author Tarquin Hall and he’ll give you 300 pages of a mystery novel set in Delhi, THE CASE OF THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING, complete with a glossary of Indian terms at the end. His characters speak English, often amusingly Indianized, with a smattering of Hindi words and phrases, and this warrants a reference tool which Hall provides through context and an index. The case of the man who died laughing is elaborate, and Hall cleverly uses each fact and facet of the case to explain another idiosyncrasy of Delhi and its urban middle class society to the reader. This is his second in the detective series, and both have received positive reviews from readers worldwide.

The book opens on the city’s clogged roads. Investigator Vish Puri is a few body-jerking traffic jams away from concluding a case and while his car stagnates en route to a critical handoff, the reader is given a whiff of Delhi’s chaos and introduced to Puri and some of his operatives. There is “Handbrake,” the driver, and “Tubelight,” named so because he is “usually ‘slow to flicker on’ in the morning,” (p.3). Puri himself is nicknamed ‘Chubby’ by family members—the Punjabis can’t resist being endearing—and these well-meaning jabs at the characters give the book an airy feel, encouraging the reader to breeze through the book without being slowed down by the inertia of heavy analysis. While this is encouraging for a reader seeking a quick read, and reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s fun and successful NO.1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY series set in Botswana, it sometimes detracts from the suspense Hall creates in his chapters. When a private party is interrupted by armed, masked men, for example, the woman being robbed are more indignant than terrified at the guns being pointed at their faces. Hall deals with the crime briefly, rushing to the investigative chapters that follow—the masala, if I may. Puri’s wife and mother are at the scene of the crime and the Detective doesn’t seem too concerned that their safety has been compromised. Is it because, as India’s Most Private “jasoos” (detective), he—and his family—are invincible? Is it Hall being funny? The tone of the book is unclear in those moments.

But Hall is systematic in setting up his scenes before action in the form of bullets, gossip, levitating magicians and hidden passageways swoops in. Returning to chapter one, a nervous man waits at a “distinctly Indian” amusement park (whatever that means!) with a large duffel bag of money he has been instructed to give to a complete stranger. Dialogue deludes the reader into thinking the money is ransom for the man’s children, when the reality is much less dire. At another moment, one hundred pages in, Puri speed-dials someone on his cell phone:

A woman’s drowsy voice answered.

‘I woke you?’ asked Puri.

‘I was just getting up.’

‘I’ll see you tonight?’ (pp.101 – 102)

By now the reader has met Puri’s cheerful wife, sharp mother and several of his trusty operatives and colleagues. Everyone seems earnest and likeable, except for the requisite relative with questionable intellect and a penchant for alcohol, and the suspects in the case. It seems unlikely Puri is having an affair, with his busy schedule and eye for roadside food. Hall’s pattern of scene-before-context reminds the reader to keep going, and the drowsy woman is introduced properly as an integral, hardly scandalous part of the cast. If this is Hall being humorous, it feels a little trite, but he quickly shifts focus to Puri’s detective activities—his forte—and the plot hums along.

Each case Hall creates and solves in this novel is deliberately included to demystify the city of New Delhi, a fascinating juxtaposition of modern and traditional, and home to millions of personalities. One case addresses the permanent headache of school admissions, another sheds light on the rising chic appeal of spirituality camps, and a third puts the reader at a “kitty party,” a regular get-together for women, and follows the gossip into their favorite beauty parlor. The men attend early morning laughing clubs where they “[ejaculate] hee-haws like drunken men,” (p.17), drink whiskey, play carom and spout crass or “non-vegetarian” jokes. Hall is confident in his familiarity with the city to provide social, cultural and religious commentary, a sense of context to enhance the read without giving anything away. New Delhi is one of the fastest growing cities in the world whose mass transit system, completed earlier this year, has impressed India’s biggest skeptics, finishing on schedule and within budget. There is a loud buzz in the city as it prepares to host the Commonwealth Games in October and Hall captures this raw, bustling energy with a humorous cast and a creative, redemptive plotline.

The case grows more complex with every chapter, but its resolution feels a bit anticlimactic: critical characters aren’t seen at the end, last heard from chapters earlier, and the book ends on a completely unrelated note. However, the case is solved and everyone is happier and better off. For a quick and light foray into Delhi, as a local or tourist, dip into Hall’s book and find out how fatal laughter can be.

My thanks to Rohan John for the book!

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