I really like this new genre of books that have started to appear with increasing frequency – good old-fashioned whodunnits set in India in the early- to mid-1900s with women as the lead detectives. Sujata Massey and Vaseem Khan have both carved out niches writing about Bombay, pre- and post-Independence, respectively. In both cases, as much as I enjoyed the murder mysteries themselves, what really brought alive the books were the historical details and settings of a city I am very fond of.
On the other hand, it physically hurts me to say anything complimentary about Bangalore, more so since I call it home now. Fine, I’ll give you the weather and the beer, both of which are in a losing battle against potholes and public transport. So, when I heard about a murder mystery series set here in the 1920s, I admit I was quite thrilled at the prospect of having my mind changed.
Harini Nagendra expands the space of historical crime fiction with The Bangalore Detectives Club, her debut as a mystery writer and the first of a series. This book is set in Bangalore in the 1920s and follows Kaveri, a 19-year-old woman, who has just moved to the city into her husband’s home. Her husband, Ramu, is a doctor, educated in England and practising at Bowring hospital. Despite having been married for three years, they’ve only just started their domestic life together and are still getting to know each other.
At a party for the hospital’s doctors and their wives at the Century Club, Kaveri witnesses a few tense scenes – one involving their milkman/hospital worker/part-time server, Manju and a beautiful woman and another rather violent scene involving the beautiful woman and an unsavoury character, who then winds up murdered at the club.
Kaveri, a fan of detective fiction, immediately decides to take a hand in solving the crime so as to protect Manju and his family. The rest of the story shows her following up on leads, including talking to the various people present at the party and the friendly police inspector in charge of the case. It’s a fairly straightforward premise, and any more detail would just give away everything.
Kaveri comes from a very conservative family, but is herself quite progressive, smart, and ambitious for the time. She was stopped from studying further after school but harbours dreams of going to college and studying mathematics. She has to prepare for the B.Sc. examination on the sly as her mother-in-law disapproves of allowing girls to study too much. She enjoys swimming and does so in the traditional nine-yards sari. She’s kind and very tenacious, but also displays the confidence of privilege, which means she orders around servers and helpers to get what she wants. I am yet to be convinced how that’s a redeeming quality.
In fact, I actually found that the character sometimes reminded me very much of my own madi saru-clad grandmother, who was a force unto herself. I’ll bet we all have experience with such grandmothers and that was a nice little blast of nostalgia.
Kaveri finds allies in Ramu and her neighbour, Uma Aunty for her personal ambitions and in running around town trying to find a murderer, and I’m guessing that they are going to constitute the Bangalore Detectives Club.
I’m only guessing because it was never fully established, except for the rather strange prologue that doesn’t seem to tie in with the rest of the story. It starts with a man coming to Bangalore to find Kaveri and Ramu and then, proceeds to sort of break in to their home and read a journal of their adventures, of which the current one is the first.
The one thing that I was really looking forward to in The Bangalore Detectives Club was a bit about the history of the city, and I was sorely disappointed in this regard. I ended up reading the book a few times to see if I’d missed anything. A lot of it was just very superficial, like the creation of the Century Club. Ramu explains to Kaveri that the club was instituted because Indians at the time were not allowed into the other clubs that were only for the British. Someone else tells her that it’s named so because only 100 members are allowed in to give it a certain exclusivity.
Now, this is all very plausible, but it would have been nice to get a little bit more insight into this life other than rich people being snooty about their pedigree. These clubs are very proud of their history and tend to hang on to past records like their lives depend on it. As a non-exclusive, non-club-going person, I would love to know what that life might have been like in the 1920s for an Indian member.
In fact, I didn’t even know that Sir M Visvesvaraya was the founder of the club, a fact highlighted rather prominently on the club’s website but not in the book. It would have been great to learn this from the book, given Visvesvaraya’s importance to Bangalore and the fact that people are likely to know of him. In fact, Kaveri does reference him at one point but in another context altogether.
There were a couple of other missed opportunities to highlight historical precedence, in my opinion. The first came in connection with Kaveri’s education and ambition at a time when these were unusual for girls.
We also have to talk about the freedom struggle. It’s supposed to be the 1920s and Jallianwala Bagh had just happened. People were angry. Sure, there are a few brief mentions about this in the story, but it’s not very fervent.
And, there are very good reasons for both these issues!
Nagendra explains that the Kings and Queens of Mysore State encouraged higher education for girls, banned child marriage, and promoted women’s rights, even though many men were dead against it (what a shocker). In addition, because the state was directly ruled by the Mysore Maharaja and not the British, there wasn’t as much discontent and the freedom struggle came a bit later to these parts.
This is fantastic stuff and it highlights how the struggle for Independence was not a monolith across the country at the time – we were not even a country then!
The trouble is that, this is all buried in a note that comes after the main story, a glossary of Kannada words, AND a whole bunch of recipes of dishes mentioned in the story. These bits of history would have really elevated the entire story had they been woven into the main narrative. And I didn’t even see this note till after I’d gone through the book a few times and was just flipping through. Who reads past the end of a story, unless like Terry Pratchett, you give the reader a reason to…
Why this is upsetting to me is because Nagendra is a pretty well-known professor of ecology and has a couple of good non-fiction works to her name on the subject – linked to Bangalore. She probably has significantly more access to historical information pertaining to the city than most people. I was really hoping these would be on display more, because I still have no softer feelings towards the city compared to when I started.
To be honest, without these, I just got Nancy Drew vibes when I was reading. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but it’s been several decades since I outgrew Nancy. Overall, The Bangalore Detectives Club is a nice, cosy mystery, and a decent way to pass the time, but it has missed the potential to be a really good series.
(Ranjana Sundaresan is an F& B analyst and a bookworm)
About the Book
The Bangalore Detectives Club
271 pages plus the glossary, which you should not miss; Rs 499