This is Nagendra’s first mystery, set in Bangalore in 1921. It is set in South India, not Bombay or Calcutta, which makes it unique in my experience. A well plotted murder mystery, it features Kaveri Murthy, a young married woman interested in continuing her studies in Mathematics and married to a doctor at the local hospital, Ramu Murthy. Oh what joy! to see a Ramu, with the correct South Indian ending and not, as always seems to be the case in novels set in India, Ram or Rama…. One of the best things about the book is that it is full of South Indianisms familiar to me not only from my own family, but also from several visits to Bangalore in the 60s and early 70s.
Bangalore at this period was not ruled by the Brits, but directly by the Maharaja and Maharani of Mysore. Women are starting to come out into society more, though they were never in purdah in South India, unlike further north, and Kaveri has a supportive husband. She has just moved to the city after her marriage and, at her first big social event with her husband’s colleagues, there is a murder. Being intelligent and independent, she is concerned when a particularly vulnerable woman is accused of the crime and starts her own private investigation to identify the real killer. She has to deal with local police, not necessarily the incompetents that always seem to feature in Indian novels, and her husband helps her. They grow closer in the process. Conveniently, her MIL (mother in law) is away for a month and my guess is that Kaveri will figure out ways to get around her old-fashioned expectations.
What I loved most was all the South Indian detail. Nobody drinks tea except the one English couple in the book – everyone drinks filter coffee out of steel cups.
Familiar (in its old meaning) terms such as “akka”, “elder sister” and “anna”, “elder brother”, are used throughout. I always addressed my eldest female cousin as “akka”. Nobody is eating chana masala. You’d think, if Amer Anwar’s “Stone Cold Trouble” is anything to go by, that Punjabi food was the only cuisine that exists in or out of India, and I got tired of reading about these women-in modern Southall-sitting around making chana masala for their BFs and husbands. Women 30 years younger than me too. This was not even true in Southall when I was growing up there and isn’t true now. The food in this novel is completely different and there are several authentic S. Indian recipes, as well as a glossary of terms, in the back!
In the front of the book is a map of Bangalore in the 1920s. I remember visiting several places on it as a child, including Lal Bagh, which literally means “Red Garden” and by extension, “Beloved Garden”, a large park and zoo where some of the action takes place. The Bangalore I remember was a quiet holiday town with broad streets, large houses, a wonderful cool climate, flowering trees, and a tranquil atmosphere. One Englishman in the book refers to it contemptuously as a “metropolis of monkeys”, which annoys Kaveri, but that is the Bangalore I remember-it was full of monkeys!! All gone now. On my last visit in 1989, I thought it resembled Newport Beach CA more than anything else, since the IT community in India exploded and moved there. It now bears no resemblance to the town I knew, and which is portrayed in this book.