Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of crime fiction that takes place in India, they think of Mumbai or perhaps Delhi. And that makes sense, since those are India’s two most populous cities. But the reality is of course that India is much more than just those two metropolitan areas. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday.
Justice Harish Shinde (called the Judge throughout most of the novel) and his law clerk Anant travel to the town of Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for a two-week holiday. They’ll be staying with an old friend of Shinde’s, Shikhar Pant, who’s also hosting some other people. One is his cousin Kailish Pant, who is a well-known writer. There are also Kailish’s friends Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO. Shikhar has also invited his old friend Pravin Anand and Anand’s son Avinash, as well as Dr. Davendra Nath and his daughter Mallika and sons Ashwin and Nikhil.
With the house party all together, the holiday begins, and right from the start there’s tension. The Mittals have been stirring up a lot of controversy because of a report their company has produced about AIDS in the state’s rural areas. The Mittals want to educate the people and help stop the spread of AIDS. Kailish Pant is very much their champion and has financially supported their company. But there are plenty of locals who feel insulted by the report, and others who see it as obscene. In fact, the Mittals are charged with spreading obscenity among other infractions. Because Kailish has so much influence (he is a famous author, among other things), the Mittals are not taken into custody, but they will have to appear in court to answer the charges against them.
Then one afternoon, Kailish is found stabbed in his cousin’s library – a room he used for his writing. The police are called, and Inspector Patel begins the investigation. There isn’t a great deal of evidence, but there are several possibilities. For one thing, the victim was a staunch supporter of the Mittals’ work; there are people who could have taken their anger at the project as far as murder. That’s actually Patel’s first theory, and it’s not long before he settles on Avinash Anand as a suspect. He was violently opposed to the report and its findings, calling the work, among other things, ‘filthy.’ And he can’t really reliably account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder.
But the Judge sees other possibilities, and he and Anant begin to investigate. In the meantime, Anant also works to help the Mittals through their legal trouble. He’s just beginning his law career, so he has very little status, but he agrees to do what he can. He prepares for their hearing and appears as their representative when their case is heard.
At one point, the Judge begins to think that he’s gotten to the truth about the murder. Then there’s another death, which requires him to change his thinking. In the end though, he and Anant get to the truth about who killed Kailish Pant.
In some ways, this novel has some of the hallmarks of the traditional ‘whodunit.’ There’s a murder, a cast of suspects, and pair of sleuths who put the pieces together. Readers who enjoy this sort of novel will appreciate the chance to ‘match wits’ with the author.
That said though, this is a uniquely Indian take on the ‘whodunit.’ The Judge and Anant do make sense of the evidence and so on, as happens in most novels that follow this tradition. But the Judge, especially, also takes a somewhat philosophical approach to solving the crime:
‘Somebody once gave me a good piece of advice, Anant. Three parts sentiment and one part business – that is the right ratio to strike in any piece of work.’
And at another point…
‘A house of Hide and Seek is neither secret nor exposed, it is neither full nor empty – bus as in that famous tale of Narasimhan and Hiranyakashyapu, the exactness of its situation lies in how indeterminate it is.’
And we see throughout the novel how the Judge uses philosophy, psychology and the facts of the case (e.g. the physical evidence) to solve the crime.
There are other ways too in which Sudarshan places the reader distinctly in that part of modern India. The climate/weather, the kinds of houses, the lifestyle, and so on are all depicted clearly. So are the kinds of characters who appear in the novel.
Along these lines, there is an interesting debate that forms a thread through the novel. The Mittals have strong feelings about the need to use modern scientific and medical knowledge to help stop the spread of AIDS and in general to improve the lives of the people of rural India. Kailish Pant feels very much the same way. But at the same time, there are many long traditions in that part of India that are important to the people who live there. Dismissing those views and that culture can be seen as offensive. And certainly culture impacts everything we do. This conversation gives the reader a look at an issue that’s being faced in many places, actually.
One of the other important elements in this story is the relationship between the Judge and Anant. The story is told in first person from the latter’s point of view, so we get an interesting perspective on the Judge. Anant respects his employer and understands his role as the Judge’s subordinate. At the same time, he’s no toady and he’s no mental slouch. And although the Judge takes his role as Anant’s mentor seriously, and doesn’t treat him as a professional equal, he is not arrogant or condescending towards him. In one scene for instance, Anant appears in court on behalf of the Mittals. He’s prepared himself as well as he can, and without spoiling the story, I can say that he behaves both competently and professionally. The Judge accompanies him to court, and while Anant is the one who handles the case, he’s still glad for the Judge’s moral support.
A Nice Quiet Holiday is a traditional sort of ‘whodunit’ with a distinctive Indian setting and style. It features a pair of sleuths with different sets of abilities and different perspectives, and a solution that is very human. But what’s your view? Have you read A Nice Quiet Holiday? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 3 March/Tuesday 4 March – The Divided Child – Ekaterine Nikas
Monday 10 March/Tuesday 11 March – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie– Alan Bradley
Monday 17 March – Through The Cracks – Honey Brown