One book is a web of stories woven into each other, while another is a perfect companion for a not-too-long plane ride, says Ramya Sarma.
Two stories, two mysteries. Murder seems to have shot back into fashion, with women writers taking the chair at the head of this particular table. Two recent instances of this are It Takes A Murder by Anu Kumar, a Singapore-based writer, and The Masala Murder, by Madhumita Bhattacharya, who wrote the book when she lived in Shanghai, and now works out of Gurgaon. While the former is cryptic and shrouded in a gentle mist of otherworldliness and to-and-fro narrative, the latter is earthy, more upfront and tinged with flavours that could be straight out of a massy Bollywood production. Both have their moments of literary joy, going in different directions with their style, execution and mood. And both are decent reads, Kumar’s book needing more concentration and a comfortable but upright chair, while Bhattacharya’s could be a companion on a not-too-long plane trip.
It Takes A Murder is clever in its use of language, imbued with a sense of funny-dark rather than ha-ha. It is set in Brooks Town, a hill-station where everyone knows everyone even though there are some people who would prefer not to be known. The events unfold 25 years after “a year that people of a certain age remember. That year a prime minister was gunned down by her own guards…” The story is framed by political happenings in the 1980s and told in the first person from the point of view of Charlotte Hyde, who is haunted by many ghosts of her own past. And there is murder, a death that did not happen by accident, but accidentally or otherwise affected all that occurred thereafter. This is the story of the violent death of Gautam Dogra, a man who was responsible, she realised, for much of the emotional whirl-pooling that had shaped the woman she was. It all had an impact on her relationship with Maddy, her daughter, the woman that she no longer knew. But the police, efficient as they are, decide that the murder is a simple case and dismiss it as that.
Charlotte, on the other hand, knows more. This is in a way her story, even though she insists that “this isn’t my story but about love. You never know who really loves you, and it’s best that sometimes we never know.”
The case is in no way simple, really, and neither is the story or the writing of it. There are characters that float in and out, like the mists in Brooks Town, and thoughts and feelings that Charlotte has that are real…or are they? She, as protagonist, knows that murder “follows its own timeline” and is “written into your life at the very beginning”, to quote Kerketta, Charlotte’s old retainer-help.
Each story that she tells weaves into every other, creating a web that eventually explains the murder and its reasons. This story is told quietly, in a soft voice that matches the ambience of the hills fading into the purple distance, the gentle slopes of the paths that invite the two wheels of a bicycle, the grassy stretches that swathe the ups and downs and pale grays of emotions that so rarely swing drastically to any side, but oh-so-slowly and inevitably lead to that zenith of crazed action. Most of all, this tale of “lost hopes and lost loves, small humiliations and disillusionments” — all of which lead down that soul-destroying path to death by bloody violence — is what Charlotte’s life is all about: “another life, anonymous and forgotten”.
The Masala Murder, in contrast, is loud, colourful, full-on tadka-maarke Bollywoodian in its mood. It tells the story of Reema Ray. She talks about food, men and murder in one quick breath and makes it all very real and matter of fact. She has a life, one outside her professional existence as a private investigator, or at least an aspiring detective, and a writer on food. She lives in Kolkata, which takes on a flavour of deliciousness with the scent of fresh-baked cakes wafting along the airways to murder.
The daughter of divorced parents, Reema keeps the ovens heated with her income — one that she is secretly ashamed of — from writing about food for a popular magazine, but is actually training herself to be a private investigator. She meets a group of similarly inclined and equally unsuccessful detectives who form the Calcutta Crime-Fighters’ Club at regular intervals and they talk about cases that they occasionally are entrusted with and sometimes solve. These people exchange ideas, information and, once in a while, leads. And of course, when a case gets too tangled, Reema bakes. Along the way she had formulated what she called the Pastry Principle, Rule #4 of which stated the obvious: Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
And that is exactly the…err…case with her latest investigation. Reema is working on a story for the magazine and in the process wanders into the cut-throat world of restaurant cooking. There is competition, politics and an astonishing amount of illegal transaction under the tables laden with delicious cuisine.
A gourmet exporter is found dead, poison being the cause. And as she looks into this seemingly complex mystery, she finds a well-blended mélange of relationships, hatreds and rivalries that could be competition to any television soap. To make things even more spicy, her ex-boyfriend, the man who ditched her so casually when she was away studying crime and detection in the United States, arrives at her door asking for her to find his abducted wife. But there is more than just work that bothers Reema. She needs to lose weight. Her mother bugs her. There is the possibility that her landlord will evict her for not paying her rent on time and because he wants her flat for his own reasons. And there is a man who seems to be following her wherever she goes, which she is not happy about, never mind that he is handsome, happening and oh-so-hot!
So this nicely rounded Bengali Nancy Drew has a lot on her plate. Her case eventually does get solved, the murderer does get caught and the delicious stalker is a great kisser. And when he offers her a job in a low-profile high-security company that he runs, she is seriously tempted. Will she take it — and him — on? You betcha! Bhattacharya’s writing is catchy, the story is easily readable, sort of like add-water-and-stir soup. It takes little effort, has no pretensions of being intellectual and will probably make a good TV series. There is no suspense built up, no aims of being more than a sweetly logical story, no drive to join any crime-writers’ star circle. Catch a plane, get out your book and enjoy the ride.