*****A Necessary Evil

Hindu God Baruda

photo: Keshav Mukund Kandhadai, creative commons license

By Abir Mukherjee – Reading this fast-paced police procedural is like a trip back in time to the British Raj, mid-1920. Calcutta-based Imperial Police Force Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee—whom Wyndham insists on calling Surrender-not—find themselves embroiled in a complicated and politically tricky investigation.

An old school acquaintance of the Sergeant’s, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore is visiting Calcutta to attend the formation of a Chamber of Princes, another in His Majesty’s Government’s urgent stratagems to dampen the population’s growing sentiment supporting Home Rule. While Wyndham and Banerjee are riding in a car with the Prince, he tells them he’s received anonymous death threats back home. Right on cue, a man dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest steps in front of the car and shoots him dead. The two policemen investigate and find the attacker, who commits suicide rather than be taken.

Further steps in the investigation, it seems, will have to take place in Sambalpore, but as one of the larger and more important Princely States, Sambalpore is administered under the auspices of its Maharajah, not the British government. The Sergeant’s acquaintanceship with the prince provides an excuse for the pair of them to go to Sambalpore for the funeral and—strictly unofficially, of course—see what they can find out.

In an author’s note Mukherjee says there was an actual princely state of Sambalpur southwest of Calcutta, with a several thousand-year history. It was notable as a place where both diamonds and coal—which figure in the plot of the novel—were prevalent. Carbon in its various forms has made the fictional Maharaja of Sambalpore the fifth richest man in India, enabling the lavish lifestyle Wyndham and Surrender-not enjoy as his guests.

Sambalpore is also a center of the worship of Lord Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The English word juggernaut, which refers to a merciless and unstoppable force, derives from the temple cars used in worshiping Jagannath and metaphorically in this novel, to the forces that ally to secure Sambalpore’s future.

As a first-person narrator, Wyndham is perceptive and charming. At times he plays his clueless Englishman card, as in the sobriquet for his sergeant. He good-naturedly criticizes their peon for not managing to master English, despite years of service, never turning that linguistic mirror on himself. The only cultural difficulty he seems unable to accommodate is the idea of an Englishwoman involved with an Indian man. Meanwhile, he’s adopted some local customs quite whole-heartedly, including the rituals and pleasures of opium-smoking.

Wyndham’s cultural blind spots are a clever narrative device for Mukherjee, who uses them to inform the Captain—and the reader—about social, political, and religious matters that impinge on the investigation. Mukherjee has created an engaging pair of police protagonists and an array of well-conceived secondary characters too.

As the plot unfolds, the complexity of Sambalpore palace life, the royal family, and the ambitious civil servants is spread out before you, and it is difficult to see how matters will resolve. Yet, time is short. The English diplomat stationed in Sambalpore, who has a deliciously gossipy wife, is determined to get rid of him and Surrender-not, and the two policemen may be put on the next train north to Calcutta at any moment.

****The Lowland

India

photo: Rajarshi Chowdhury, creative commons license

Perilously stretched, but yet unbreakable ties of blood, obligation, and love link three generations of a Calcutta family in Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It’s a pleasure to read a book so well put together, in which Lahiri saves something of a surprise for the end.

The story centers on two brothers in a family living alongside the lowland, a marshy area of ponds and fields, “thick with water hyacinth” next to their home in the city’s outlying area of Tollygunge. In the monsoon season, the water rises and floods the lowland and the two ponds merge. Not until the next summer does the water completely evaporate.

Subhash is the older and from childhood the more responsible brother, and Udayan the risk-taker. They are as inseparable as the nearby ponds throughout their school years. It’s the 1960s, and they still are living at home until after graduate school, when Subhash takes the dramatic step of immigrating to the United States for postgraduate study.

At first, Udayan pleads with him not to go. He’d gone to the countryside to do some work and returned very ill. When he recovers, “some part of Udayan was elsewhere. Whatever he had learned or seen outside the city, whatever he’d done, he kept to himself.” What he’s done is become involved in the Naxalite movement—the Maoist Communist party of India. It inspires him. It also is deadly dangerous. Subhash is not interested in this new passion of Udayan’s and resettles in Rhode Island.

Through his political work, Udayan meets and marries Gauri. They live with his parents, who expect her to be a traditional Indian wife, but she is university-educated and the situation is uncomfortable. Then the police come. Udayan tries to hide under the water in the lowland, but in front of his parents and wife, they murder him.

When Subhash returns to the aftermath, he sees Gauri’s position in the family is untenable, marries her, and takes her back to the States. The rest of the book is about his and Gauri’s relationship and how each of them relates so very differently to their daughter Bela, formed her from presence and absence alike, including the absence of Udayan.

A novel covering such a long swath of time necessarily skims a great deal, but in a sense, time has not moved on at all, and both Gauri and Subhash (who wasn’t even there) are stuck in the moment of Udayan’s death. It’s only by breaking free that their world will open up again. Hoping that they can keeps you reading.

Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

***The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra

Ganesha, India, elephant

(photo: Swaminathan, creative commons license)

By Vaseem Khan – Though this debut crime fiction author was born in London, his experience working in the Indian subcontinent comes through clearly in his convincing portrayal of the people, culture, and politics of the complicated city of Mumbai. He’s managed to marry that deep knowledge with his more recent work experience as well. Since returning to the U.K. in 2006, he has worked in the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London.

If it’s possible to have a “gentle” crime novel, this is one, although the crimes he writes about are wicked, indeed, involving trafficking of young boys, murder, assault and that persistent and almost universal social disease, corruption. Our hero is 51-year-old police inspector Ashwin Chopra, who has been forced into an unwelcome early retirement by a heart attack. Just at that time, two unusual events occur.

First, he hears the laments of a poor woman who claims that because her family has no status, the police will not investigate the death of her son, which they claim was accidental and which she says was murder.

Second is receipt of the bizarre inheritance that gives the book its title—a baby elephant. The accompanying note warns Chopra “this is no ordinary elephant.” Indeed.

At home, he’s at loose ends. His wife Poppy worries about his health and wants to keep him close, but that would mean also being close to his amusingly sour mother-in-law. These family relations are charmingly told, tongue in cheek. In fact, the light and witty tone of the book is reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and Tarquin Hall’s tales about Punjabi Vish Puri, “India’s Most Private Investigator.”

The reader can’t take seriously that Chopra tails a suspect accompanied by baby elephant Ganesha, or that the elephant manages to save Chopra’s life. I don’t believe Khan expects readers to be that literal. Instead, his easy prose encourages us to relax into a foreign, sensuous environment where even the worst bad guys are likely to get what’s coming to them. I had a few plot quibbles, but these can be glossed over in light of Khan’s many other accomplishments. It’s a crime story perfect for readers who don’t require nonstop violence. I’m delighted there’s more to come in this series!

A longer version of this review appeared at CrimeFictionLover.com.

****The Financial Expert

India, dawn, village

(photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license)

By R. K. Narayan (1906-2001)– A friend brought me this book from a trip to India, where the acclaimed author is well appreciated for his classic tales. They combine a deceptively simple narrative style and acute perceptions of human nature in all its absurdity and poignancy. Graham Greene was an early Narayan admirer and helped bring his work to attention in the West.

In this novella, the hero, Margayya, although indubitably Indian, also is “a type which should have taken its place long ago in world literature because he exists everywhere.” Margayya, whose name means “the one who showed the way,” indeed does show the way, although his ultimate destination is not what he hopes or has planned. His story begins in his early career, sitting daily underneath a banyan tree at the center of his dusty village with his small box of forms and pens, helping peasants sort their finances, brokering loans, and earning barely enough to keep his wife and adored son, Balu, in food.

Over the course of the book, his financial prospects greatly improve, Balu grows up, and Margayya rises to great heights on the back of his miraculous financial innovation that the reader recognizes as, essentially, a Ponzi scheme. But ungrateful Balu proves Margayya’s undoing, and the lesson stretches beyond the financial calamity it produces: “The only element that kept people from being terrified of each other was trust—the moment it was lost, people became nightmares to each other.”

As the plot winds toward the inevitable, Margayya’s vanities, his obliviousness disguised as business acumen, and the jockeying for advantage of everyone around him—in an economic environment where so little advantage is to be had—provides ample fodder for  the kind of laugh-at-ourselves “humour that knows no national boundaries,” says Der Kurier, Berlin, also the source of the earlier quote.

The story takes place in the mid-1920s to 1940s, when colonial rule in India was drawing to a close and the country’s legendary legacy of bureaucracy was increasingly entrenched. This exchange between two of Margayya’s acquaintances sums up the incessant frustrations:

The first man is commenting on his difficulties getting a nuisance business moved somewhere else: “. . . you know what our municipalities are!”

Second man in an aside to Margayya: “He is himself a municipal councillor for this ward . . . and yet he finds so much difficulty in getting anything done. He had such trouble to get that vacant plot for himself—”

First man: “I applied for it like any other citizen. Being a municipal councillor doesn’t mean that I should forgo the ordinary rights and privileges of a citizen.”

Well said. I laughed out loud.

In the introduction to another of his books, Narayan says that in India “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story,” and in Margayya he has selected an unforgettable protagonist and packed his tale with humanity.