Book name-Murder in Seven Acts: Lalli Mysteries
Sometimes, even the committed crime fiction reader, like a cop who has seen too many corpses, begins to tire of the genre. That’s probably a good time to read Kalpana Swaminathan, one of the few Indian writers of crime fiction in English. This reviewer hasn’t always been enthused by the mysterious exploits of Lalli, Swaminathan’s 50-something sleuth who has featured in seven books over two decades. The plots have sometimes seemed on shaky legs, the resolution underwhelming when it arrives after many digressions.
But one blunders into wisdom with time. And so, having been jaded by the violence of Scandinavian noir and staggered by peering into the abyss of human depravity far too many times, I found great joy in Murder in Seven Acts, seven short stories in which Lalli, with the help of her niece Sita, and the cop Savio, solves riddles that range widely across time and space.
Crime and murder are an ugly rip and tear in the order of life. But this is a collection that delights in beauty and the people who craft it. From a molecular gastronome who makes an edible version of a rare sculpture to a designer’s assistant, a darzi, who creates intricate clothes for the front row to gasp over. A murder victim’s curved and long nail turns out to be proof that he is a rubab player. An old book maker, whose art has fallen into disuse, is summoned by Lalli to piece together shards of a delightful puzzle. A sari-seller comes to the Vile Parle flat with vital information but first, he will pick out the “right saris” for Lalli and Sita — a black-and-silver for the aunt, and a sea-green Induri for our narrator, which would “turn turquoise in a waft of light.”
The detection of the crimes takes Lalli across Bombay, and the city, like its skyscrapers, intrudes into every view we are offered. That view is often from the street or even the window seat of a bus — in ‘Murder Pret-a-Porter’, Sita sniffs out the stench of a murder from observing a man sitting near her on a bus from Malad to Achanak Nagar. Lalli collects curiosities, Sita has told us often enough. And why not? What is a great urban organism but a petri dish swarming with the eccentricities of human life? A great cast of Bombay people flit through these pages. Meet Florentine, summoned by an NRI every time “unwanted aunts and forgettable uncles” need their life to be sorted, forms to be submitted to prove one is alive, or light bulbs to be changed (‘A Face in the Crowd’). Or Leslie Xander, haute-shot designer, who wears a “metrosexual langote” and introduces his girlfriend as his muse. “Lesser men have wives,” notes Sita tartly.
As narrator, Sita is not just a Watson to Lalli’s mysterious leaps of imagination and reasoning, but a character with her own voice and a way of seeing, who allows Swaminathan to open up every story to voices of the city, musings on films and literature, and objects of beauty, even when they are unrelated to the plot. Many Lalli mysteries are often solved across the dining table, and good, delicious food is often near at hand, for nutrition as well as solace — “a cup of jeera rasam, argumentative with pepper and garlic, with a curry leaf crisped in ghee.”
Beauty is truth, truth beauty: that is this crime novelist’s holy grail. It is created not least through Swaminathan’s wry, elegant language. Not a whit of flab on those sentences, but endless surprises. She is undoubtedly one of the finest Indian writers of English.
What of the crimes themselves? There is no super criminal here, but humans soured by greed, jealousy and lust. Despite the vast city, whose inner rhythm Lalli is always attuned to, Swaminathan teaches you to listen to the intimate and the human. At the end of the last, improbable story of this collection, and its bravura resolution, one is forced to revise one’s expectations of crime writing. Forget probability, seek pleasure. Watch a writer at the top of her game tip her hat to her foremother. Most of all, understand that even this most morbid of genres can be a celebration of the good things of life.