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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Book Review: Murder with Bengali Characteristics

A speculative murder mystery, more a satire about a brave new futuristic world than a crime fiction.

Written by Zac O'Yeah |
Updated: June 20, 2015 12:00:39 am
shovon chowdhury, shovon chowdhury books, shovon chowdhury book review, murder with bengali characteristics, book review Murder with Bengali Characteristics is a free-standing sequel to the successful comic novel The Competent Authority (2013) which was shortlisted for a fistful of awards.

Title: Murder with Bengali Characteristics
Author: Shovon Chowdhury
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 184
Price: Rs 395

I’ve always had a soft corner for speculative fiction. It’s not quite the same as science-fiction and it differs from fantasy literature in that, while trying to re-imagine the human world, authors stick to largely realistic methods. But the genres are related.

Some masterpieces in the genre, which, like the present book, blend in elements of crime fiction, include Len Deighton’s 1978 bestseller SS-GB, where Scotland Yard detective Douglas Archer finds himself working in a Nazi-occupied Britain, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, in which the Jewish people were settled in Alaska after WWII, rather than Palestine, a fact that has strange messianic ramifications.

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India, too, finds a place in speculative fiction. Rajshekar Basu’s 1920s satire, The Scripture Read Backwards, has a Bengali empire as the dominant cultural and political global power (so there’s no market for fairness creams; instead, Englishwomen are doing their best to darken their skins). Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air (1971) is set in a world where the British never left India but instead, with Winston Churchill as Viceroy, carry on with their ever-expanding colonialism. Quite a few novels exploit this “what if colonialism never ended” theme as in SM Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers (2002), where Europe has been destroyed by a meteor and Delhi is the world capital.

The most interesting examples of speculative crime fiction with Indian elements (I’m leaving out my own Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan from this discussion), are Jonathan Franzen’s 1988 debut The Twenty-Seventh City and Shashi Warrier’s latest terrorist thriller Noordin’s Gift (2014). The former has the Indian-origin chief of police S Jammu, her psychopathic henchman Singh, and the fair Agent Asha hatch an elaborate conspiracy to turn the US city of St Louis into an Indian fiefdom. In the latter, set in 2025, the foreign hand is as usual plotting an attack on south India. Although there’s very little sci-fi (except for the occasional, pin-drop silent auto-rickshaw), Warrier anticipates severe geopolitical changes, including a Taliban takeover of Kashmir.

Coming to Chowdhury, his Murder with Bengali Characteristics is a free-standing sequel to the successful comic novel The Competent Authority (2013) which was shortlisted for a fistful of awards. Here, we are transported to a Bengal which in 2035 is no longer part of mainland India, but has been annexed as a Chinese province with Kolkata as its capital city. On the very first page, there’s a strangulation murder with seemingly Thuggish characteristics. Chinese police inspector Li immediately zones in on the New Thug Society which has its offices on 36, Elgin Avenue; a social organisation determined to liberate Bengal. Li is a fairly un-xenophobic colonial officer; his take on the difference between Bengalis and Chinese is that “they eat fish heads, we eat pig ears”.

Also involved are two seedy businessmen, Verma and Agarwal, protecting their own interests, which wouldn’t benefit from a conflict between Indians and Chinese. The duo like to mull over their affairs in that old favourite hangout, Olypub on Park Street (proving that you can take Kolkata out of India, but not change its essential nature), where “an ancient waiter tottered up to their table with a bottle of cheap whisky and a peg measure. Verma estimated his age to be ninety-seven. The unions were strong here.”

This short novel is thus a rambling satire about a brave new world full of oddball futurism and mind-bending political scenarios, and almost every page makes the bulbs flash over a reader’s head. There are plenty of quirky sci-fi elements that keep me amused, such as speaking magazines with artificial intelligence built in. And AR Rahman’s music is considered to be classical Indian. But what it doesn’t quite do is make the grade as a compelling crime novel.

It relies too much on cutting jokes and less on the mandatory page-turning drive. There should, ideally, have been a ratio where plot development matched quotable lines and weird infodumps. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a crazy book going a bit off the mark, but it does slow down the narrative when one laughs too much. Nevertheless, fans of The Competent Authority will get another dose of that same worldview in chapters that read like comic vignettes.

Zac O’Yeah is an author, literary critic and translator.

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