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Murder With Bengali Characteristics

Shovon Chowdhury

Aleph Books

Pages: 204 Rs. 395

Bengal, the most hilarious territory China never had

Shovon Chowdhury’s follow-up to his brilliant first novel sees a Chinese cop negotiating with Naxalites, guerrilla children warriors and reincarnated Bengali politicians, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  11th Jul 2015

Shovon Chowdhury. | PHOTO: Shyon Chowdhury

he last call was to Bijli Bose. Could it really be him? The patriarch of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)? The grand old man of the party? He was reputed to be 121 years old. He had kept himself young by sucking the blood of the youth of Bengal, according to one version. Others thought it was because he drank nothing but the finest Scotch. Could this poor old man have been in touch with such an exalted personage?"

The last call made by a murder victim is a classic opening for the whodunit. Shovon Chowdhury's Murder With Bengali Characteristics, loosely structured as a whodunit, opens with Inspector Li, a suitably square-jawed, taciturn super-sleuth investigating the murder of an old Bengali teacher, who had been a revolutionary in a different era. And as the passage above suggests, whenever Li has Bengal figured out, it throws up newer, weirder quarries at him.

For the uninitiated, this novel takes place in the same universe as his hilarious debut The Competent Authority. In the future, China has nuked out significant chunks of India's major cities, including the entirety of Mumbai. Bengal has seceded and is now a Chinese protectorate. The Competent Authority, a despotic little bureaucrat, has become the de facto leader of the Indian government and is itching to start a war with China again.

While the previous book was set mostly around the events of Delhi and the new administration, this book tells us about the madhouse that is China's latest protectorate. The locals laugh at the Chinese people's attempts to speak Bengali, even as a ruthless Chinese police force allows them to brawl a little just for the sake of familiarity. The governor of Bengal is being subdued inch-by-inch by his secretary using powerful doses of sedatives. And two opportunistic businessmen (Verma and Aggarwal, minor characters from The Competent Authority) are looking to earn a fat stash out of inevitable warfare.

ompared to his previous book, Chowdhury is somewhat predictable here, but this is understandable: it is considerably easier to surprise when you have time travel at your disposal. Moreover, he is in his element here, especially when describing Bengali idiosyncrasies. Here's Chowdhury riffing on Olypub, the darkest, dingiest and most glorious pub in Calcutta, known for cheap drinks and greasy food.

"They took a moment to look up fondly at the sign, which was still crooked. The doorman was inside, in the corridor, slumped in a chair. He was in his seventies, too young to be a waiter. It was a sore point with him. He ignored them as they entered. No one had tipped him in decades. He was nursing his resentment well and biding his time. They climbed the rickety stairs. The stench was like a fog. The air was full of smoke and intellectual banter."

While the previous book was set mostly around the events of Delhi and the new administration, this book tells us about the madhouse that is China’s latest protectorate. The locals laugh at the Chinese people’s attempts to speak Bengali, even as a ruthless Chinese police force allows them to brawl a little just for the sake of familiarity.

Chowdhury's humour occupies a cosy space between slapstick and macabre. Plot-wise, this book is a bit of a start-and-stop affair where too much happens in the second half and perhaps not enough in the first half. But you don't even notice this until you are in the last 20 pages or so because of the sheer mirth of Chowdhury's dialogue. Inspector Li's interrogation of Bijli Bose, where Chinese and Indian modes of murder are compared, comes to mind immediately. When I was reading the book on the Metro, this passage coincided with the train's arrival at Rajiv Chowk, which was just as well: the incoming crowd muffled my loud sniggers. Ditto the passage where it is revealed that despite the intervening decades, Mithun-da is still the key to a Bengali heart.

"'Does he do kung-fu?' asked Big Chen, keen to defuse the situation. 'He does everything-fu,' said Geju-da. 'He is multi-talented. He can do Madrasi. He can do Marwari. He can portray divinity. He can portray divinity. He can encourage children on television to reveal inner talent. He is an accomplished dancer of the disco. He achieved notable success as a hotelier. If you like, I can introduce you."

Apart from the murder mystery at the heart of the book, there are numerous attractive sideshows as well. Follow the new-look Kolkata IPL team, as it struggles under the unbearable weight of actually training and weaning itself away from partying and shenanigans with cheerleaders. In Chowdhury's world, they are now being disciplined to within an inch of their lives, by a group of ruthless high-performance Chinese coaches (if you have ever watched an Olympic broadcast on TV, you know the species he is talking about).

As is the case these days, the final word on Bengal comes, inevitably, from Didi aka Mamta Banerjee, satirised here as Pishi, a relic from the past who decides to take matters in her own hands upon seeing the Chinese ruining both themselves and Bengal. Pishi is an escapee from a mental institution. She possesses a strange power that gives people "a strong urge to obey her blindly" and in a sly Douglas Adams tribute, makes people listen to her poetry as punishment.

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