24 August 2014

The 'national bird' of Punjab claims a victim

Detective | The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken | Tarquin Hall

Once in a while, one gets an Indian detective set in India, written by a non-Indian. Since getting Indian citizenship is one of the most difficult things to do, I suspect that Tarquin Hall, though married to an Indian and living in the NCR, is probably not an Indian yet, so I'm putting his book in this category.

The first Vish Puri book I read was The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. In that, a debunker of mystics was stricken dead on India Gate lawns by a 20-foot effigy of the Goddess Kali that appeared and then disappeared. All the other members of his Laughter Club (there are plenty all over India, it's not as much fiction as you'd think) were unable to move from their places till the apparition had disappeared. Vish Puri of Most Private Investigators takes over the case and tries to sort out myth and reality. What I liked particularly about that book was the solution, down to earth and not the least bit Eastern-Oriental Mystic. Although it wandered into places I've never even heard of, let alone experienced. But it's a big country.

So, coming to this Vish Puri book, which is the third in the series. Vish (short for Vishwas) Puri attends a pre-cricket match party, at which the father of a rising star Pakistani cricketer falls dead after eating his butter chicken. He's been poisoned with aconite. I really didn't know it was that easy to get hold of aconite in India, but I'm prepared to suspend disbelief. After all, it is astoundingly easy to get acid.

Vish Puri has a whole team of helpers with quirky nicknames (we never get to know their real names) like Handbrake the driver, Tubelight the operative (tubelight is slang for a slow-witted person in India, so why Puri calls his top operative Tubelight is a mystery), Facecream the slick woman operative, Flush the computer whiz with the James Bond gadgets, and the like.

Vish Puri's English is quirky, but his mother's is downright weird. Oh, okay, there may well be Punjabis who talk like that; I'm sure T Hall didn't invent these people out of whole cloth. Yet, the language is not so much familiar as dissonant. I guess I should stick around some Punjabi friends more, but most of them who speak English don't mangle the language as much.

Vish Puri is also a member of a group of moustache aficionados, some of whose moustaches are being stolen by a midnight thief. I facepalm and think, Only in India. At any rate, Puri is unaware that his mother is stealing a march on him, as she's not only worked out the motive for the murder, but the most likely suspects. He, in the meantime, goes off on all kinds of chases into the murky depths of illegal betting on cricket matches. He goes to Pakistan, all a-tremble at stepping into enemy territory, and back with a different view of the country.
Tarquin Hall's view of Delhi, India, Gurgaon and Pakistan is very different from the average Indian's. More observant, more disinterested about the politics, full of authentic detail and yet described in words strange to an Indian. The books are published in the UK, and reprinted here. The delighted reviews are probably from Angrez reviewers who recognise a wittily turned out Indian caricature.

I watch the books about India by non-Indians like a hawk, hyper-sensitive to incongruence. Because it always exists. Pickles are not aachar, they are achaar. A Punjabi, creating a diminutive for a name, will not convert Vishwas into Vish. Vishu, Vishi, yes, but not Vish. That's what a Brit would do, like Kipling saying a mother would call her son Ashok, “Ash”. But even Indian authors, proofread by Indians, get it wrong often enough (see Ashok Banker's Ramayana series for an example of how he mangles amavasya), so that's fair enough. My main crib about Vish Puri is that he is a caricature. Quite what of, I'm not sure. Probably as much of a caricature of a Gurgaon-based Punjabi as Hercule Poirot was of a Belgian.


Let's leave it at that. Hall has just put too much turmeric in the curry. But it's nice and tasty despite that. Go easy on the cloves, too, sahib ji.

Sorry about the tininess of the image.

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