05 November 2013

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall

By the god – what a book, yaar

Like previous Vish Puri books, this one is not just a ripping detective story. It is also an educated look at life in India. Each of the books explores at length complex representative motifs, and in this one, cricket, and in particular corruption in cricket, is one of the main ones. Alongside this broad theme, the text is rich with incisive references to local specialties such as pharmaceutical mores (the cavalier manner in which medicine is prescribed and eagerly guzzled down in India); the Dubai-underworld connection; the utility of geckos pasted on Indian ceilings; other pointers that lead to broad explorations of Indian lifestyles and subtle inferences into the Indian psyche.
Puri sipped his Scotch. It wasn’t as good as Indian whisky, he reflected. But Britishers enjoyed bland things. Like toad in the hole and depressing poetry about damp valleys and all. Such a strange people: highly civilised in many ways, yet with no fire burning in their bellies. Still, there was something gratifying about helping them out when they turned up in Delhi. Despite their inherent conceit, their fundamental belief in the superiority of Western civilization, they were always out of their depth here in India – trying to operate in a world that was impenetrable to them. “Welcome to the real world,” he often felt like saying to them. “Welcome to India!” And yet somehow Puri always found himself adopting a subservient manner when dealing with the British. India was free and independent, had been for more than sixty years now, but he couldn’t help trying to impress upon them that he, too, was civilized.
What made this book far more ambitious than the previous ones, almost terrifyingly so, is that here Tarquin Hall tackles the very complicated and intimate connection between India and Pakistan.
Like many Indians, indoctrinated to fear and hatred of an enemy country, Vish Puri is terrified when his detecting takes him across a border both quaint and deathly serious. Once there, his observations and experience transform his feelings. He finds it a place where smoking is still permitted in public places. People he meets are friendly and courteous (from the airhostess who’d assured him the plane wasn’t going to crash, to the hotel concierge who’d talked about how much he’d enjoyed visiting India last year). Puri, known to friends as ‘Chubby’, also has his world view significantly altered by a Lahori meal he would never forget as long as he lived (the marinated mutton so tender, so succulent that it melted in his mouth; the yoghurt-based gravy a perfect blend of coriander and chilli with just a hint of lemon, wiped up with crisp pieces of roghini naan, and every last bit of marrow sucked from the mutton bones). 
Through Vish Puri’s indomitable Mummy, an accomplished detective herself, Tarquin Hall gives us little glimpses of what Partition did. Like remnants of any traumatic horror, these glimpses are compelling and very moving, and occasionally demanding of the refuge of denial. 
Once, not very long ago, Tarquin Hall referred to his Vish Puri books as belonging to the genre of ‘detective cosies’. To me they are far more than cosies. There’s a specialized anthropological depth to them that I admire almost as much as I enjoy the quality of his detective fiction.