Rooting for Lalee: Sheila Kumar reviews Rijula Das’s ‘A Death in Shonagachhi’

Combining murder mystery with gritty realism, this is a skilled debut novel

Published - January 01, 2022 04:00 pm IST

LR and SM 

LR and SM 

With such a straightforward title, what the reader expects is a Shonagachhi crime, and that is what the reader gets. To unravel the backstory to the deed, we are taken to South Asia’s largest red-light district with all its murk, heartbreak, violence and unexpected pockets of comfort.

The protagonist Lalee is a sex worker who has managed to survive by repressing all memories of her past and adopting a carapace of indifference, under which simmers much anger. Lalee has a babu , an unlikely admirer and regular visitor by the name of Trilokeshwar ‘Tilu’ Shau, a man who “possessed all the charm of a leftover roti.” It is with him that Rijula Das chooses to start her story.

The first chapter is laugh-out-loud funny, with a less-than-charitable description of Tilu — a writer of penny eroticas who is in thrall to the city’s past. So deceptively witty is the beginning that the reader is lulled into thinking this is going to be a quirky thriller.

But no. The story then dives into a darker place involving the usual suspects: a the merciless brothel owner, a faux-Russian hooker, some sweet young sex workers, an evil Maharaj and his acolytes, and cops who are reluctant to take up this particularly gruesome murder case because they think sex workers are low on the money-making chain. Within a few chapters though, Das blows the cops’ premise apart, showing us how sex workers can be found across Kolkata’s tony areas, hotels and parties, blurring the lines between ‘respectable’ and ‘disreputable.’

Das employs a measured pace; there is a restraint to her prose through which the pain of most of the characters (pimp and cop included) peeps through. And if the ending is pretty much de rigueur , if the female characters are better drawn than the male ones, that’s alright, because somewhere along the way, the reader has started rooting for Lalee and Co.

Not quite a murder mystery, not quite a crime novel, more a pointillist story about a sex worker’s life, A Death in Shonagachhi is a skilled debut.

A Death in Shonagachhi; Rijula Das, Picador India, ₹599

The Bengaluru-based writer is an author, journalist and manuscript editor .

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