02 February 2012

The body in the back seat by Salil Desai

Murder mystery in my backyard
It’s always a pleasure to read a book set in a place you happen to be visiting. So … why did I pack this one in my things for Hampi? I think it was simply because I was so excited to discover a thriller writer who lived in my own city that I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. I had actually been reading a much-acclaimed ‘literary’ novel with a blurb by none other than Amy Tan on the cover! But that soon fell by the wayside. As I confessed to my (disappointed) husband, there’s no use in my pretending to be an intellectual – give me a good murder mystery any day.
And this did turn out to be gripping, well written and very local to Pune, which I particularly loved. I have to admit that I’m tasteless enough that the macabre humour also made me laugh:
“What’s this new technique of custodial death you’ve adopted, Ghorpade?” asked Saralkar cheerfully. “You tow away people in their cars, and then eliminate them?”
PI Ghorpade chuckled. “No, no, it’s our traffic colleagues who’ve decided to start penalising all parking violations with death.”
Our hero, Senior Inspector Saralkar is astute, afflicted by mood swings (though generally of grumpy nature), and a reader’s delight, sarcastic about the Secrets of Living spirituality course the department has deputed him to attend, and astute at popping perfect Catch 22 questions to his longsuffering subordinate (“Are you in a hurry, Motkar?”)
Luckily 'raps' were a thing of the past; he can but pound the table with his fists and hiss with contempt,

Get out, Motkar! You aren’t fit to be a police officer! You ought to be a clerk in one of those fancy companies that give paternity leave!
But Saralkar can be gentle too – surprising even himself – when the need arises. I liked almost everything about him – except perhaps the fact that he didn’t care for some of the many thumb rules and unofficial norms of policing – such as delaying police intervention to let matters sort themselves out – it’s a tactic that the sadly overburdened Pune police really cannot do without.
One of the things I liked best about this book was the author’s sensitive and commonsense approach to life.
  • When children lose a parent – there may be no immediate sense of loss. But the loss grows and continues to haunt them long into adulthood.
  • On the Mumbai-Pune expressway: Why in the world did people believe that their reflexes would work at such high speeds, and prevent fatal mishaps? Why couldn’t they stick to the recommended eighty kilometres per hour?
  • When a child gets out of hand, a little brutality from a normally meek policeman father might just be the solution to the problem.
  • When even barber shops keep fresh magazines for their patrons, why do doctors, who earn much more, only leave tattered ones in their waiting rooms?
  • The seven deadly sins are called so because they draw you into a world where sin becomes a lifestyle – the new virtue for sustenance and success. And the only way to survive the consequences of deadly sins is to commit still deadlier ones.
By the time the second body appeared, I was concentrating more on the book than the fabulous rocks, foliage, ruins and Israeli food of Hampi. And in the end, why hadn’t I been able to guess the killer?
Looking back through the pages later, I noticed the clever nudges that prevented it.

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