She sleuths to conquer: A new murder mystery is set in Bangalore of the 1920s

Updated on Jul 09, 2022 12:49 PM IST

Harini Nagendra’s debut novel is focused on a 19-year-old homemaker-turned-amateur detective. But it also offers glimpses of a very different Bengaluru, a pre-Independence India, and the sisterhood of women in a rapidly changing country.

‘The book is not just about a single woman; it’s also about the sisterhood of women, the communities they form and the ways in which they support each other. That has always fascinated me,’ Nagendra says. PREMIUM
‘The book is not just about a single woman; it’s also about the sisterhood of women, the communities they form and the ways in which they support each other. That has always fascinated me,’ Nagendra says.

Not many murder mysteries involve an element of time travel. Harini Nagendra’s first novel offers a mystery, bits of history, even a couple of heirloom recipes. The Bangalore Detectives Club (Hachette; May 2022), the first in a proposed series, is set in the Bangalore of a century ago.

“I wanted to write a character-driven mystery, where understanding of psychology, personality and setting dominated over technological solutions, and where old-fashioned detective skills could be showcased,” Nagendra said. So she set her series in the 1920s, a time when the science of fingerprinting was still being refined.

At the heart of the book is Kaveri Murthy, a 19-year-old homemaker who lives with her husband Ramu Murthy, a doctor, and his family. Murthy is a kind but independent soul who goes swimming in her sari, disregards caste norms, and studies in secret (her mother-in-law disapproves of her interest in maths). Around her, the fight for independence from colonial British rule is heating up. Society is changing. Women are graduating. Murthy is a woman whose young mind is fired by these ideas.

Then, at a dinner party hosted at a members-only club, Murthy stumbles upon the body of a local pimp who has been murdered in one of the gardens. When she finds that a vulnerable woman is being tagged for the crime, Murthy becomes determined to exonerate her and find the real killer.

Harini Nagendra, 50, is director of the Research Center at Azim Premji University, and leads the university’s Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability. This is her fourth book; the other three were works of non-fiction centered on the trees and biospheres of Bengaluru and other cities.

When she turned to fiction, she says, she decided to tell a woman-centric story. “The book is not just about a single woman; it’s also about the sisterhood of women, the communities they form and the ways in which they support each other. That has always fascinated me,” Nagendra said. “Writing a diverse ensemble of women characters helped me showcase this diversity of experiences that made up the Indian or ‘native’ part of colonial Bangalore.”

The “native” city also comes to life in her novel. “The cantonment area, with its tiled and monkeytop roofs, its raintrees and gulmohurs, is visually stunning,” Nagendra said. “But the Indian parts of old Bangalore, with their lively, messy, charming streets, are far more interesting to me.”

There are even some heirloom recipes thrown in, as Murthy learns to cook for her husband in between her sleuthing. A dry dish called beans palya is her go-to recipe when she’s working on a mystery or a maths problem and is rushed for time. Her bisi bele hulianna (spiced rice with lentils) is a hit with doctors and their families when they come over for lunch.

The real challenge, Nagendra says, was drawing on her imagination to embellish the scaffolding of facts that she gathered in her research.

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Read an excerpt from the book here

“I looked at a number of old black-and-white photographs of different locations for inspiration, and then closed my eyes to try and imagine how the city looked in three-dimensional colour; read old letters and autobiographical accounts to understand how people lived; and studied old maps to understand the routes that Ramu and Kaveri would have taken as they travelled across 1920s Bangalore to uncover the murderer,” she said.

Her research revealed some interesting details. Lal Bagh, Bengaluru’s botanical gardens, for instance, housed an active zoo at the time. “I found a story in the archives that described a litter of tiger cubs that were being suckled by a stray dog. I incorporated this into my book, because it was too fascinating not to,” she said.

Some areas were more difficult than others for Nagendra to imagine. The Bowring hospital, for instance, where Ramu Murthy works. “What went on inside a British hospital that catered to a mixed population? I had to piece together bits and pieces from information in archives, but of course I still can’t be sure.”

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