Whodunnit Books

Codes, clans and cows: ‘Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt. Ltd.’ by Richa S. Mukherjee reviewed by Anil Menon

With Richa Mukherjee’s detective novel Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt. Ltd., her unassuming hero Prachand Tripathi joins the ranks of Byomkesh Bakshi, Shorty Gomes, Aunt Lalli, Kasthuri Kumar, Muzaffar Jung, Hari Majestic, Vish Puri and other intrepid crime-busters from the subcontinent.

In a sense, it is almost superfluous to review a whodunnit. After all, we all know the rules. There is at least one detective. There is at least one dead body — murdered, obviously. There is at least one murderer. There are several suspects. The rest of the book proceeds to model how our incomparable Indian police work in real life — frame the least-likely suspect with the crime.

Local colour

Mukherjee has the good sense to stick to these rules. The first part is set in Kanpur, the second in Mumbai. Prachand has just launched his detective agency over the objections of his father, Dinabandhu Tripathi. However, Prachand has the support of the other members of the joint family, especially his brand-new wife, Vidya. Prachand’s first serious gig is to keep tabs on an exotic

Codes, clans and cows: ‘Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt. Ltd.’ by Richa S. Mukherjee reviewed by Anil Menon

newcomer, Shailaja Kapoor, the reclusive daughter of an erstwhile Bollywood actress. The daughter, also an ex-actress, is unhappily married. This useful fact allows Mukherjee to introduce an unpleasant husband, domestic conflict, kidnappers, and so on. Soon, Prachand and Vidya find themselves accused of a murder and are forced to flee to Mumbai in the hope of finding Shailaja’s mother and clearing their names.

The detecting work is mostly a matter of spotting villains, chasing villains, being chased by villains, figuring out the identity of the Big Evil the villains work for, with everything ending in an all-out melee at the Big Evil’s den until our incomparable police arrive just in time. The story is told in a light-hearted, even cartoonish vein.

However, as is often the case with commercial fiction, there’s a lot going on under the melodramatic surface. There are two stories here, squashed into one plump book. The first story is about youthful aspirations in a joint family living in a small north-Indian city. The second is about an unhappy nuclear family from Mumbai who have everything they need and nothing they want. Kanpur is the locus of all that is good and kind and stolid and real; Mumbai is the locus of all that is bad and untrustworthy and exciting and weird. Prachand and his missus have no real work in Kanpur until Ms. Shailaja Kapoor and her problems arrive from Mumbai. Kanpur is a tranquil oasis of missing pets, oddball kleptomaniacs, nosey relatives, and chatty local colour.

Honourable aim

What Mukherjee does not say and does not need to say is that Kanpur doesn’t exactly have a dearth of crimes or social problems. After all, Kanpur is part of Uttar Pradesh, the state with the lowest numbers on every social development measure but with the highest number of guns per capita in India. Prachand’s father is devoted to the family cow Hirwa and her urine, but he’s also in the leather business. “We have spent years skinning ourselves day and night to run this shop,” says Dinabandhu bitterly, in a quarrel with his son over career choices. But the skinning business is in a bit of a slump.

The reason, we learn a few chapters later, is partly due to the lack of workers since “most of them have run away because of the cow crusaders...” I suppose “cow crusader” is less of a mouthful than “excitable Hindu thugs willing to kill in the name of protecting a cow”. If the outer spaces have their subtext, so do the inner ones. For all the cosy closeness of Prachand’s close-knit joint family, it is clear the Vidya wouldn’t be too heartbroken if the entire clan, with the exception of her beloved, met with a fatal truck accident. If Mukherjee’s novel is at all subversive, it employs subversion in the mode of the Bollywood movie.

I do not mean to suggest that Mukherjee has used melodrama to lighten or hide the more tragic aspects of actuality. A novel that wears so-called truth on its sleeve is also engaged in melodrama; and realism when carried to its logical end often turns into performative farce. Mukherjee’s novel “only” seeks to be “timepass”, and it succeeds in that difficult and honourable aim because the author sees her small city and its people with affection. I wish she had been less affectionate, less sensible — an author, if she is to be original, mustn’t be too sensible — but other readers may disagree. As Umberto Eco pointed out, any novel turns the reader into a virtual detective, and it’s up to the reader to decide which clues to decode.

I’m not sure if there’ll be more of Prachand’s adventures. But since crime, like the poor, will always be with us, I’m willing to bet that readers who invested in this book and its world will soon get a chance to do so again.

The writer’s novel, Half of What I Say, was shortlisted for the 2016 Hindu Prize.

Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt. Ltd.; Richa S. Mukherjee, HarperCollins, ₹250

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