A straightforward murder story cross-ventilated by complex relationships, packaged in a light read.
The title of this review is the last line of Hamlet, muttered by the dying prince amid a sea of bodies (including his own). In the book under review, the rest is not silence. The death of the protagonist’s mother unleashes a swell of emotion, mystery and more death until the author finally cries, ‘Let her rest now’.
Probably because of Vijay Nair’s tiny smiling face on the back cover, I was beguiled into believing the narrator was a man. Until on the second page Neha says of her cab driver: “I must have appeared all the more vulnerable to him, a young woman, picked up from the airport and making a seven-hour road trip alone.” In no time at all, though, we get under the skin of the bereft, anguished girl and her concerns, her ambivalent attitude towards her mother, the ambiguity of her concern for an old school friend, her easy tears, the ache of illegitimacy, new sexual feelings that grow into an obsession, the desperate need to find resolution and peace.
In the wake of her mother’s murder in Lucknow, the distraught Neha is further haunted by a second death, a horrible replica that suggests the hand of the same killer. Only this one is down south in cool Coonoor where she did her schooling. Her childhood friend Samir is under suspicion, which is why she flies down from Delhi and takes that cab from Bangalore to Coonoor. Wrapped in her thoughts, she waits in Samir’s cottage for his release.
Despite being a small racy novel that can be read in a couple of sittings, the story is crowded with characters, relationships and attitudes. Like those magnetic dolls that repel and attract (for example, the Sita-Ram-Ravan set where Sita would turn to Ram but be repelled by Ravan), characters in the book have strong likes and dislikes, often bordering on neurosis. One of them is a serial killer. The victims are disfigured, their hands bound together as if forced to seek forgiveness. Samir is arrested and remains a suspect until yet another identical murder happens.
The characters belong in a larger saga. Artist Samir, his rich mother and step-father. Neha, her mother and the “father” who cannot own up to them. Little old spying ladies, nosy neighbours with their own information technology. A bizarre foursome from the U.S. whose sexual proclivities leave the reader dazed. The likeable young police officer who warms up to Neha. In a sense we have a neat package, a straightforward murder story cross-ventilated by complex relationships, all in a light read. Vijay Nair’s triumph lies in the fact that some of these characters and their interactions stay with us even after the book is done.
The setting is perfect: Coonoor with its woollens, dark walks and claustrophobic transparency. Add the scent of murder and you have a page-turner. The genre’s success lies in an underlying tension translating into that pit-of-the-stomach feeling until the final revelation. Here, sequential excitement is often sacrificed and at times we forget there’s a killer on the loose as we widen our eyes at the grid of relationships and emotions. The canvas isn’t large enough to absorb everything. The denouement is satisfying (though, trained by Agatha Christie, I did make an early lucky guess).
There’s a surprise towards the middle when Neha finds one of Samir’s nudes in an upstairs room and soon enough the subject of the painting walks into her life. The beautiful Sujala is a substantial character who affects everyone who comes in contact with her. Samir’s fascination with her and the mystery of her floating relationship with husband Kabir are strong enough to intrigue the reader, but the build up in Neha’s case is fragile, and doesn’t support the dark obsession that later fills her life. Sujala is such a powerful character she warrants more attention than the author can give her.
Power is at the core of the book. The rich and influential crush the weak, as Samir’s parents do. Political heavyweights like Neha’s “father” use women, hide their peccadilloes and flaunt their muscle. Sujala uses her power over lesser mortals like Samir, Neha and Kabir. And when power goes weak, it kills.
Let Her Rest Now; Vijay Nair, Hachette India, Rs.295