Of whodunits and misleading blurbs

Published : Jun 03, 2024 11:16 IST - 3 MINS READ

One measure of the distance Indian detective fiction has travelled from its early days is the proliferation of women detectives.

One measure of the distance Indian detective fiction has travelled from its early days is the proliferation of women detectives. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Dear Reader,

Throughout my school life, I idolised Satyajit Ray’s smashing detective, Feluda, and wanted to be him. Never mind the fact that he is a he, that too of the ascetic kind—he never had a girlfriend. It is only now, when I look back, that the almost total absence of female characters in the Feluda novels strikes me as odd. Most of the middle-aged men in the Feluda books are either widowers or have a wife tamely minding her own business in the background—they hardly ever impinge on the narrative.

The idea is probably that Feluda’s intellectual life is so happening that he does not have any space left in his head or heart for turbulent romantic emotions. In this, he has a peer in Sherlock Holmes, who routinely sneers at romantic failings. However, Feluda’s predecessor in Bengali detective fiction, the truth-seeker Byomkesh Bakshi (created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay), does not shy away from women—he courts and marries Satyabati, who proves to be quite his equal in intellect and integrity.

One measure of the distance Indian detective fiction has travelled from its early days is the proliferation of women detectives. Take Ambai’s Sudha Gupta, Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli, Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry or Harini Nagendra’s Kaveri. While they are as sharp as their literary forerunner in English fiction, Miss Marple, they are anything but old, shuffling village gossips. All of them are city-bred badasses who can kick, fight and punch. Gifted with both brains and brawn, they are one step ahead of their male counterparts. As Swaminathan said in an interview: “I created Lalli in her 60s as women of that age are usually less restricted and have no hang-ups. They are more curious and are naturally interested in human beings. Therefore, they often make better detectives when compared to men.” This holds true of Perveen and Kaveri too, though they are younger. Their emotional intelligence gives them the edge.

Tarun K. Saint, editor of the two volumes of The Hachette Book of Indian Detective Fiction, discusses this aspect, among others, of contemporary Indian detective fiction in his erudite essay here. Fans of detective thrillers must read it. Many of the stories in The Hachette Book of Indian Detective Fiction have women detectives acing the game. For instance, Anirudh Kala’s story, ‘No thermometer for insanity’, is led by “a half-hearted trainee psychiatrist and a part-time rookie detective”, Dr Baani Sandhu, who is helped in her hobby of detection by her acumen as a psychologist and vice versa.

Another must-read from Frontline’s latest issue is Geeta Doctor’s review of Salman Rushdie’s Knife. While the Rushdie fan club has been swooning over the book, Doctor’s review is remarkably balanced and, as such, serves as a reality check. So does Manjula Padmanabhan’s review of Crooked Seeds by Karen Jennings, whose earlier novel, The Island, was longlisted for the Booker in 2021. Awards and adulation tend to cloud our judgement, making us automatically assume the greatness of any work by a prize-winning author, sometimes without even reading the books. The endorsements screaming out from book covers do not help matters. Both Doctor and Padmanabhan cut through the haze, calling a spade a spade. Their forthrightness makes for a refreshing change.  

Meanwhile, a book has landed on my desk with a detective outlined as “a fat, grumpy, whiskey-drinking, book-obsessed lesbian”. Unwittingly, the adjectives seem to be arranged in descending order, with the descriptor, “lesbian”, being the most damning. Blurbs are alarmingly misleading, told you.

More waffle next time. Till then,

Anusua Mukherjee 

Photo credit: Getty Images/ iStock 

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