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Updated: May 4, 2013 16:21 IST

Lukewarm mystery

K. Srilata
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The Secret Gardener. Author: Kalpana Swaminathan.
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The Secret Gardener. Author: Kalpana Swaminathan.

Lalli’s latest outing has its moments but, on the whole, the book fails to grip.

Perhaps it was my anticipation of pleasure. Perhaps it was a case of unrealistically high expectations. But my disappointment with Kalpana Swaminathan’s latest Lalli whodunit was acute. The Secret Gardener, to put it mildly, made me want to curl up and go to sleep. And I thought whodunits were meant to do the opposite!

Touted as India’s answer to Miss Marple, the plain- speaking, somewhat quixotic 60-year-old Lalli, a retired police inspector is a beguiling enough character. At her age, she doesn’t care a damn. She takes a real interest in people, even people younger than 10. She has intuition and empathy. She is sharp as a tack. She is also a collector of curiosities — which is what leads her to the world of crime.

In various interviews she has given, Kalpana has described the process by which Lalli “simply arrived” in her life. No, my problems are not with Lalli! But she alone isn’t sufficient to pull the train of the narrative along. In the absence of a sufficiently focused plot-engine, The Secret Gardener blunders its way along confusedly. And I am not sure it was such a good idea to have the detective’s niece Sita narrating the story to us — for the narration is weak.

Now for the good stuff, where the Kalpana we are used to comes alive. I will start with the mummified finger, the novel’s narrative centre. In attempting to solve the mystery of the finger, Lalli and her niece Sita knock on the doors of Arifa’s beauty parlour. The latest in nail-fashion gets creatively mixed up in the business of murder. This part of the story where we meet the completely bald Arifa, ironically enough the “High Priestess of the New Look”, is told with Kalpana’s customary charm. Presented with the mummified finger, Arifa attempts to re-create it. For this, she temporarily “borrows” Sita’s hand:

“She turned to me, “May we borrow your hand?” I thought she was going to paint a nail to match the one we had brought along, but it was not going to be as simple as that. For the next ten minutes, my fingers were oiled, massaged, scrubbed, steamed, creamed, cooled, oiled, massaged, scrubbed, steamed, creamed, cooled, defrosted, soaked, anointed with a black slime and then severely commanded to rest. … Eventually, the timer buzzed and cracked the chrysalis, my left hand emerged. Only to be slid into a moist glove that felt like molten lava at first and then clung like a sweaty handshake while my right hand ran the pace. Next a basin of icy cold water arrived, deliciously scented of rose that I recognized as genuine Damascus absolute, none of your synthetic alcohols. Patted dry with luxurious warm towels, my hands emerged newborn.”

After this delicious process, Arifa proceeds to do Sita’s nails, using the exact shade that is present on the mummified finger. Chilling. Exquisite. Kalpana is at the height of her narrative power when linking the process of cooking to moods:

“There’s something immensely soothing about the geometry of the chopping board. The menu’s based entirely on my state of mind. Anxiety demands the perfect brunoise, dice 1/8th or 1/16th of the inch depending on desperation. Sanity is medium dice. Exuberance is paysanne or mirepoix. Joy is julienne. Anger is a large dice and to hell with it. Most days I’m content with an easy macedoine or a quick chop, but today called for discipline. Avial, then!”

What a pity it is that despite a more than interesting protagonist and despite writing that flies, the novel fails to grip! While good detective fiction must introduce several threads and work towards tying them all up, the threads themselves should be sufficiently interesting. And this is where The Secret Gardener doesn’t quite work.

One loses patience along the way. It seemed to me that there were far too many characters and far too many sub-plots hanging around doing nothing. And even though, in the concluding chapters, Kalpana ties up everything reasonably skilfully, even though there is sufficient blood, corpses, twisted minds and horror to please the most diehard whodunit fan, the wait didn’t seem worth my while.

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