Murder in Seven Acts: Lalli Mysteries by Kalpana Swaminathan is a collection of seven crime stories, where all the cases are solved by Swaminathan’s popular detective character, Lalli. The collection derives its name from the sixth story, ‘Murder in Seven Acts’, in which history combines with modern technology in the commitment of a crime and in solving it. The stories are narrated in the first person by Sita—Lalli’s niece and the Dr. Watson of the Lalli mysteries—and most of them feature Lalli’s usual collaborators: Savio, a police officer; Inspector Shukla, the local police officer; and Dr. Qureshi, the forensic expert.
There is an old-fashioned charm in Swaminathan’s writing. Even in the crime fiction and mystery genre—and, especially, for a work published in the second decade of the 21st century!—the pace of the stories is relaxed, almost giving a feeling of being in the days of cobblestoned streets, rumbling trams, and ornate streetlamps.
One would expect the murderer to materialize through a deep mist. But no, despite their quaintness, Swaminathan’s stories are very much set in and in tune with the present, and most of them take place in the bustling metropolis of Mumbai. With suspenseful plots and an atmospheric narration, the stories describe not only the crimes but also the city of Mumbai.
The first story in the collection, ‘A Face in the Crowd’, begins in a humane manner with the troubles faced by the elderly.
‘Parents age. Unwanted aunts and forgettable uncles are discovered in dire straits. Cousins unheard of since childhood prowl on the property, terrifying the grandparents. Then there are smaller, more life-threatening crises: forms to be submitted to prove one is alive, pension arrears to be claimed. Light bulbs to be changed. Ceiling fans to be changed.’
This has to be one of the best opening paragraphs I have read lately. With my own parents having turned senior citizens, this was an opening I could relate to. To this touching beginning, Swaminathan puts an element of horror. A single elderly woman, Auntie May, who is in her sixties and lives alone in a cottage in Mumbai, is being followed by a woman whose face she tries to remember, but cannot. This is followed by the discovery of a photograph and some small bones in a wall in the bathroom of her house, which makes her believe that she is going crazy. Lalli convinces the worried Auntie May to give up her psychiatric treatment and uncovers a story of rivalry in love and a murder that had taken place decades ago.
‘The Quantum Question’ is about a crime of passion in which Savio plays a leading role. Savio’s physics teacher from college, Professor Bhavnani, has six of his favourite students—including Savio—visiting his house years after the death of his daughter, Rupa Bhavnani, in a fire that had burnt down his entire house. Now the house is called bhoot bungla (the haunted house) even though Professor Bhavnani had renovated the interiors. The notes that the six former students had received, inviting them to their professor’s house, as well as the note sent to the professor informing him of the visit by his students appeared to be written by Rupa, though that was not possible as Rupa had been dead for years. Using theories devised by Schrodinger, Lalli uncovers a story of exploitation hidden in the soot-stained depths of a formerly burnt house.
This story has an eerie beginning set in a rainy evening at the Bandra Sea Face where Lalli, Sita, and Savio are keeping watch on the bhoot bungla. The mood for the story is set by this passage: ‘High tide. The sea a blue-grey spatter of gall. A curl of corruption in the cold air, sneaking in from the Koliwada, where heaps of drying fish sweat under taps. The road a froth of mud in a mad hurry.’ Soon after, this passage describes in sensuous details Sita’s thought on what ought to be done on a rainy evening: ‘The place to be was home. On the balcony with a book, fitting accompaniments within reach. For the challenging page, a cup of jeera rasam, augmented with pepper and garlic, with a curry leaf crisped in ghee to preserve the decencies of debate. For more mindless pleasures, coffee would do. Hot, smooth and sentient, with luxurious nibbles of Lalli’s fruit cake.’
The feeling of localness has been nicely brought forth in ‘The Sixth Pandava’ which, apart from being a murder mystery, is a statement on our intolerant and power-crazy times. An author, Parikshit Joshi, has written a book titled ‘The Sixth Pandava’. The Right-Wingers believe that Joshi has interpreted the Mahabharata in a wrong way in his book. So they organize a book burning right at his doorstep. Joshi falls into that bonfire and dies. Lalli’s investigation reveals that it was not an accident but a murder.
As Sita drives frantically through Kataria Street and Santa Cruz East to reach the bonfire site on time, a map is established in the reader’s mind. Also, when Lalli comments on the address—‘Nivas, Niketan and Sadans are near extinct, replaced by villa, palazzo, mansion and even chalet in recent years’—we are informed of the changes in our world.
In ‘Murder Prêt-à-Porter’, set in the world of haute couture, Swaminathan deals with the rights of artisans and manual workers and even makes Sita compose a four-line story on a bus ticket: ‘They loved / He lied / She shoved / He died’; while in ‘Threnody’, she pays tribute to the queen of crime and mystery, Agatha Christie.
Swaminathan’s stories are more than just crime and suspense. It is elegant writing that grows on the reader like soothing music. This is a perfect book, Sita would agree, to curl up with in one’s balcony on a rainy evening with a cup of jeera rasam or hot coffee.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar lives in Jharkhand and is the author of a novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, which won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, and a collection of stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, which was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize. His first novel for children, Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh, will be published in August 2018.