24 June 2011

Murder in the Ashram by Kathleen McCaul

Dirty, murdering, holy river
I wouldn’t call this book an enormous success as a murder mystery.

There were no parts of it that had me glued to the pages, turning faster and faster in a tizzy to find out what happens next. To be honest, the fact that there was so little suspense is not the only reason why I’m not sure whether this can be called a murder mystery at all.
But while I wouldn’t call Kathleen McCaul a genius thriller writer, I did feel that this was a brilliant travel book, exploring such matters as the quaint food superstitions of northern India (you’re not really supposed to eat chikki in summer … and it's very, very dangerous to eat yoghurt at night) and local notions of hospitality, portraying them in a very natural way without appearing to poke fun:
“… er … my wife is out of station now you see. She’s not at home so I couldn’t offer you anything good to eat.”
He didn’t sound suspicious, just slightly uncomfortable. He wasn’t the kind of man to revel in having a girl come alone to his home.
“It’s a shame I can’t meet your wife. I would have loved to. But I don’t want anything to eat at all, honestly.”

He paused to think. “Ah. Why not. Please come. I’ll send the boy out for crisps and juice at least.”
The scenery is spectacular too:
It wasn’t so hard to find the paan wallah’s house, even without his name. We walked along the lanes into the heart of the slum, picking on a benign-looking man, sitting smoking a bidi cigarette. Shruti asked him if he knew the guy who made paan outside the Hanuman Temple. He thought for a moment, took a drag on his bidi and shouted into a nearby house. A woman ducked out of the door with a ladle in her hand. She thought for a minute before pointing towards a small store, squeezed between two houses, just a counter made from bits of wood. Her husband got up off his haunches and padded over to the shop where he had a chat and bought a pack of biscuits. His wife brought a steel plate out of the house and he placed the biscuits out carefully before sharing them between us all. He told Shruti the shopkeeper knew the guy we wanted, bought paans from him for festival. He lived a few streets down. A small boy scurrying past was hoodwinked into taking us directly to the paanwallah’s home.
I particularly liked the two stereotype Indian journalists that feature in this book. One is a young Delhi wannabe star reporter with a New York accent (she got her degree at Columbia) and the other has neither talent, aptitude nor curiosity but plenty of money to buy expensive high-tech equipment (his father is “in steel”).
This book is a work of fiction, so I was surprised that it featured a few real people and institutions – for example the erstwhile Rajneesh Ashram in Pune, and darling of the Delhi press, Mayor Sheila Dikshit.
The scene I admired most was when the heroine of this book, a journalist herself, is asking what happened to the money she was offered for the article commissioned by Guy Black on the foreign desk at Telegraph, and Guy Black’s slimy responses – so typical of the way freelance writers are treated in every country.
I thought I might mail Kathleen McCaul and ask her if she’d really had something like that happen to her but decided not to because, what the hell, there’s hardly a freelancer I know who hasn’t.

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