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Updated: July 6, 2013 16:37 IST

Calcutta calling

Kankana Basu
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F.I.R., Monabi Mitra, Penguin, Rs. 199.
Special Arrangement F.I.R., Monabi Mitra, Penguin, Rs. 199.

A pulpy murder mystery about the city and its people.

A Dabangg-style cover — a cop in khaki and aviators brandishing a revolver — says it all. Delicious promises of action, emotion, blood, gore and sleaze are made by the gaudiest of book-covers ….. But surprise, surprise! F.I. R by Monabi Mitra is anything but the shoot-die-hi-bye kind of hurried murder mystery that the jacket not-so-subtly hints at. It is a well thought-out, and articulately-written novel that grips the reader from the first word to the last.

The story is set in the heart of the City of Joy but the period is obscure. Cell phones are in vogue but the city is constantly referred to as Calcutta, not Kolkata. We are introduced to a host of characters like the peevish, pretty Tara from a shabby middle-class background and who nurtures a simmering grudge against her affluent cousin Robi and his wife, Nisha. Robi, a paralytic at 40, lives an invalid’s life in a beautiful stately home (the bone of contention between the two cousins) with his wife, and is looked after by a retinue of servants. Nisha, a social butterfly is known to organise lively parties, and Tara is an infrequent and unwilling visitor to these. One evening, Robi is found dead, having apparently succumbed to his failing state of health. But the doctor flatly refuses to issue a death certificate. And therein, rests the problem.

Enter Bikram Chatterjee, the handsome, debonair DSP who has a way with his subordinates but hates his senior, the churlish SP Toofan Kumar. Already buried under an avalanche of criminal investigations, Chatterjee now has the unenviable job of looking into Robi Bose’s death. To add to the complications, Bikram’s girlfriend, actor Shona Chowdhury, is a part of the dead man’s social circle which makes the matter all the more delicate and distasteful.

As Bikram embarks on multiple assignments, the reader is led through a maze of hi-society jinks, sombre middle-class lives, dust-laden police- stations and the sleazy by-lanes of a bustling city. Dogging Bikram’s footsteps and throwing a spanner into his works at every possible opportunity is SP Toofan Kumar who — to save face, time and bother — would prefer to wrap up the death as a case of normal death or, better still, pin the murder on the first convenient candidate available. His plans are thwarted by Bikram, who, weighed down by ethics and love of truth, finds himself at constant loggerheads with his boss.

The book is liberally spiced with sensory details, of which night-soil appears to be a favourite and makes frequent appearances. However, the characters — hoodlums, police informants, servants, socialites and cops — are stereotypical. Mitra captures the stifling hierarchical pressures of the police force and the tricky fences between Calcutta’s affluent and the modest middle class are well etched. It is while stomping down the alleys of the city’s underbelly that the author is most uncomfortable. But by and large, she builds the suspense well, leading the reader up many blind alleys and artfully confusing drug rackets, cross-border counterfeiting and petty crimes with Robi Bose’s death.

DSP Bikram Chatterjee is no Chulbul Pandey though the book cover would have us believe otherwise. He is suave, intelligent, understated and has an impeccable taste in clothes, food and women, but drives rashly and jumps traffic lights. This, along with his deep-rooted insecurities, makes him human and endearing to the reader.

One looks forward to further works featuring DSP Bikram Chatterjee, whose love life promises to be as tantalising as his career. In a way, this book is as much about the city of Calcutta as about its residents.

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