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Saturday, Dec 07, 2019

Review: A Death in the Himalayas by Udayan Mukherjee

While mysteries are mostly plot driven, A Death in the Himalayas also includes political critique

books Updated: Nov 22, 2019 19:53 IST
Percy Bharucha
Percy Bharucha
Hindustan Times
Kanchenjunga (1944) by Nicholas Roerich.
Kanchenjunga (1944) by Nicholas Roerich.(Heritage Images/Getty Images)
280pp, Rs 499; Pan Macmillan
280pp, Rs 499; Pan Macmillan

To have a murder mystery recommended by Manu Joseph is encouraging. The Himalayas as a setting for a good thriller? Extremely reassuring. A Parsi detective written by someone who isn’t a Parsi, A Death in the Himalayas is a downright unicorn. If for nothing else, Udayan Mukherjee definitely earns brownie points for diversity. As Manu Joseph says, ‘If you have been desperate for an Indian mystery novel … rejoice, it is the start of a series.’

Welcome to Birtola. Your average, relatively lesser-known, run-of-the-mill hillside town – retirement home for retired super-cop Neville Wadia and his wife, Shehnaz. Their life of picturesque pond-gazing reverie is interrupted by the murder of Clare Watson, resident foreign activist, author and local women’s-rights champion. A high-profile victim leads to the return of old colleagues and older nightmares. Neville must choose between wrestling with old demons – visions of those he could not save – and foregoing his duty as a friend to Clare and her husband. Apart from the treacherous terrain, leopard-infested forests, Wadia must also navigate the minefield that is local politics.

Through Clare’s death, the book brings to the fore the underlying tension between the traditional and the modern outsiders. Mukherjee must be applauded for not succumbing to the temptation of making people look and sound better in fiction. While mysteries are mostly plot driven, it is refreshing to find one that has an underlying political critique within it. The insular traditionalists say good riddance: “These memsahibs come here thinking they can be part of our village life. You tell me is it possible? This is not their place. Sooner or later, such a thing is bound to happen.” In stark contrast, the women Clare has championed silently mourn her loss. The media reaction to the event is as expected – sensationalist, alarmist and defensive.

In A Death in the Himalayas, Mukherjee presents no paucity of motive. What is unique to the book is the meshing of the political with the personal. While the usual helping of inheritance, jealousy, adultery, and shady business deals remain abundant, the addition of political motives elevates this novel from the domestic and ‘family squabble’ plot lines common in cottage-hill murder mysteries. A woman who could have been murdered for trampling over male egos, that’s uncommon and, in this climate, sadly believable. What is hilarious is that Wadia often concurs with the reader about the abundance of red herrings.

Udayan Mukherjee
Udayan Mukherjee ( Courtesy the publisher )

The title of the piece brings to attention the character and ambient work that Mukherjee has put in. In a genre that is, to a certain extent, formulaic and where the plot is paramount, Mukherjee puts in conversations and ruminations that are surprisingly profound. He endows his characters with the rare gift of self-awareness. When Shehnaz gushes about Clare to her mother in Bombay, the latter responds with this gem: ‘…you sound just like the owner of the Britannia café in Fort, who runs around showing everyone framed pictures of the royal family. Such touching allegiance.’ In one swift stroke, Mukherjee has demonstrated scathing wit, and an insider critique of the Parsi propensity to overtly admire the British. I am both in shock and awe. Such similar strokes bring in dense matter that touches upon privilege and reverse migration, tradition and modernity. And he does it in a way that feels organic to a tale, surprisingly, of murder. In a rather poetic tone, Wadia offers this, ‘Much that I love this place, Satish, sometimes I feel that this romance of living in a remote village can only be enjoyed through the eyes of privilege. By people like us. It’s almost ironic how many of us are dying to run away from the cities to places like Birtola, while the people who have always been here would grab any chance to swap places with us and settle in a big city.’

While Mukherjee reposes great intellect in his characters, he reposes little in his readers. Throughout the novel we are repeatedly told and reminded of how ‘the case was so marred by a lack of physical evidence that they would have to get very lucky indeed to be able to prove anything against anyone’. The narrator brings to mind those annoying tour guides who at the edge of each cliff remind you it’s fatal to lean over.

Read more: Review: Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee

What perhaps is of the greatest disappointment is Mukherjee’s denouement. In light of the high bar that he sets so early on in the novel, the ending seems hasty, simplistic and perhaps forced to fit what Wadia terms ‘the dark abyss inside human beings’. In the end, narrative divulges the who, but as to the more important question – why – it offers no explanation. It is tragic that what began as a lovely guided tour of idyllic Birtola and its people feels like a traipse towards the end. The gleam of a fresh motive remains momentary as the novel relapses into the realm of the staid tragedy. In the words of my mother, the mutton in the dhansak turned out to be doodhi (bottle gourd). I reiterate, however, that this disappointment is a product of the book’s comparison only to itself. Within the thriller space it still embodies a fresh, new voice.

Mukherjee’s writing, within the Indian mystery genre, has the potential to be seminal. It is of tremendous assurance to know this is to be a series. Mukherjee’s detective remains unique, a heady blend of both Poirot and Sherlock. As for Neville, I will be there cheering, yelling intermittently, “Chal dikra chal!” (Get a move on!)

Percy Bharucha is an independent journalist.