22 December 2010

It can't be you by Prem Rao

A book that will keep you up at night

This story starts with a corpse and a handful of suspects.

Colonel Belliappa, Maha Vir Chakra, had retired from the Indian Army.
Making use of his connections in the armed forces, he had set up a company that traded in arms. He lived in Coorg, where he managed his ancestral plantations, until he suddenly dropped dead one evening.
His partner in the armaments’ venture was the German beauty Elena, 33 years old and determinedly risen to the swanky diplomatic life from her humble origin as a plumber’s daughter in Berlin.
Elena, now Belli’s second wife, is not the only one with much to gain from his death – his daughter Shefali is 29 and could only marry her long-time boyfriend Rashid under threat of being cut out of her father’s will. And Pritam, 24, dopehead, is a wimpy understudy in a Mumbai architect’s firm; a sad disappointment to his father who would have much preferred a boy in his own mould. Their mother Dinaz is a silent but significant character and pervades each page though she had died tragically by falling off a cliff when the children were little.

Who killed Belli? Or was it suicide?

Now this is not one of your overworked whodunits in which some kind of eccentric character comes along, unravels various mysteries, applies cunning psychology, and apprehends the murderer with a flourish in the presence of all. In this book, each of the characters tells their own story and we learn who they are, what they do, and how their minds work, so we don't have to wonder what the great detective is thinking but can make our own judgement about motive, opportunity and guilt before the truth unfolds.

Telling separate stories in the first person works well to create a more intimate acquaintance with each one. However, a greater literary skill would have differentiated each voice and tuned it better to each one’s character. I found the narrative rather too homogeneous for this format. It Can’t Be You could also have done with better editing to sort out occasional awry sequencing and loose ends. And I found its sex scenes
slickly inserted and all rather the stuff of big-boob-oriented adolescent fantasy.

What I did enjoy very much about this book is the insights it presents into recent Indian history and our armed forces. For instance, to learn what many in the know believe about why India was so badly beaten by the Chinese in 1962 – read this book! There is a lot of interesting information here which has faded from public memory and I felt happy that it was being revived. It was also a pleasure to read, in Belli’s story, the noble IMA credo: “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” Ah – what values to live by!

As each character’s narrative progresses, the tension builds and though there’s no tremendous surprise climax ending, Prem Rao has been successful in creating good goose-flesh inducing prose.

Sadly, this captivating story is presented in a shabby, old-fashioned format – with font, margins, paper quality and other design parameters unlikely to have any but the most determined reader reach out and pick it off a shelf.

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