Review: In Your Blood I Run by Sonia Bhatnagar
Of dirty stories and corpses in the bushes – a tale of adultery, murder, and scandal set in 1930s India
In Your Blood I Run is a fast-paced thriller set in British India in the 1930s about childhood friends, Lavanya and Ratan, who haven’t seen each other in years but whose names are linked to a high-profile murder in Simla. While the police are attempting to apprehend Ratan, who is the key suspect, the Bombay police has picked up Lavanya for questioning. Sara Davenport, the wife of a high-ranking British officer, is discovered dead on the lawns of the Governor’s mansion, where she had been invited to a party. Ratan, a Bombay-born law-school dropout, is Davenport’s employee as well as her companion and lover. As he approaches the Governor’s mansion to pick her up, he notices a figure dashing through the trees in the dark. He notices Sara in the bushes, and the next second she stumbles and collapses. He runs to her aid, but she dies in his arms.
Ratan flees as he is certain he will be framed for Sara’s murder. In colonial India, with few rights and limited freedoms for the native populace, no one would have believed in his innocence or spared him for killing an Englishman’s wife.
When Sara’s body is discovered the next day, police find alongside it a book of erotic stories written by Lavanya. The handwritten note she had slipped inside the book for Ratan – “an inside joke” – lands her in grave trouble. The police believe she is an accomplice. They also believe her erotic writing provoked the murderer, and that her handwritten note is a coded instruction to Ratan to carry out his sinister plan.
Lavanya faces a ban on her book, unless she cooperates with the police to track down Ratan. Within days, she is in Simla attempting to clear her name and Ratan’s; she is certain he is innocent. She recalls their childhood as neighbours in Bombay – reading out her poems that he dismissed and the times he played editor: “…poring over the words on the page and pronouncing some alive, some dead.” Her lone ally is Noor, a former classmate who is now a prominent actor in the film industry.
A friend tells Ratan to turn himself in as “the brave ones who have done nothing wrong, don’t run”. But Ratan knows better. “The kind of nonsense the entire country was fed by the so-called leaders. What brave people did and did not do. That’s why the country had jails spilling over with brave people crying for freedom and unable to do anything about it,” he thinks to himself.
Debut novelist Sonia Bhatnagar’s murder mystery has a gripping plot, which makes it unputdownable, and writing that’s top-class. Her characters are well-chiselled, and it is easy to empathise with both Ratan and Lavanya, who has a strong feminist streak. She doesn’t crumble under pressure and never once sheds a tear; not even in private. She shuts down her two brothers, who are embarrassed by her erotic writing, and defends her freedom to write, even in court. When the senior officer in-charge of the investigation tries to embarrass her by asking her to read out highlighted portions of an erotic story to a room full of people, she does so with confidence. If the reader is looking for real life parallels to fiction, the incident recalls Ismat Chughtai’s obscenity trial for Lihaaf at Lahore in 1946.
Ratan too focusses on proving himself innocent. Not one to fret about being a fugitive, he is enjoying the good life in a “borrowed” bunglow tucked away in the hills. Outsmarting the police on most occasions, he even sends up a prayer for a young policeman assumed dead. Though Ratan’s character has several shades of gray, he is still endearing. Readers are unlikely to judge him; not even for the easy charm with which he wins over the ladies.
The most moving part of the book has Lavanya recalling her mother’s reaction after reading her best-written work, Sitara’s Story. She slaps her and asks, “Why must you write dirty stories? “Because nobody else will”, “because it makes me happy”, “because dirt is in your mind, Ma”, “because you don’t want me to,” Lavanya replies. It does not satisfy her mother and she invites a baba to cure her daughter of her “sickness”.
Bhatnagar draws the reader’s attention to what binds women across class, caste, and race. She depicts with flair the predicament faced by the wives of senior British officials, the invisible Indian women who serve them, and the likes of Lavanya. In that pre-Independence world, the women are all ruled by men who lord over and control them. Sometimes this is done subtly; at other times, it’s outright. In a way, they are all Sitaras from Lavanya’s story.
The central character’s struggle is poignant. “Questions were being asked about their friendship. How long had they known each other? Had they colluded together to commit this crime? Was it a crime of passion or cold-blooded revenge against an entire regime? Why had she sent him this book? What did her scribbled note to Ratan inside the book mean? Was it a secret code that only Ratan could decipher?”
Still, there are moments when readers will have to suspend their disbelief, such as the many times Ratan dodges cops, and the portrayal of the media in the pre-paparazzi 1930s.
A tale of adultery, murder, and scandal, In Your Blood I Run is an enjoyable read.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.