By Shovon Chowdhury. Grade: B+
There is a certain degree of novelty in ‘Murder With Bengali Characteristics’ that can leave one awed. It is different, rather very different, not the regular stuff that I often come across in bookstores, categorized neatly in genres, alphabetically, serially. Shovon Chowdhury does well not to label his book into a stereotypical affair, playing with our minds and the bugs residing in them. Instead, he attempts to be singular, on the basis of the strength of his unusual narrative, and the unconventional setting of the story.
At first glance, whether it is the title, or even the first chapter, the book comes across as a murder mystery. However, it would be wrong to classify it into this particular genre, if we strictly go by the definition and the attributes of a good murder mystery. The title is a bit of a misnomer, but if you have picked it up, do carry on, ‘cause it offers a raw uniqueness that’s rare in modern Indian literature.
The novel is set in future, somewhere in the 2030s, with Bengal a Chinese protectorate, and Calcutta its capital. The story starts with a murder, that of Barin Mondol, who used to work in the fisheries department. He seems to have been strangulated, and his fingers are missing. Who would have performed such a gruesome act? Inspector Li of Lal Bazar takes up the case, eager to solve the mystery soon. He is assisted by Big Chen, Sexy Chen and Phoni babu.
As the pages unfold, we the readers witness the world of politics and power. There are tricks, treachery and deceit, and scheming manipulations to gain control. However, the well-crafted narration induces humour in every aspect of the plot. There are clever one – liners, and witty phrases, along with intelligent dialogues, that avoid the story in falling into a darker genre.
‘Murder With Bengali Characteristics’ excels in its comic timings, and one chief reason for this is its characters, or to be more appropriate, caricatures. There are people we can relate to in real life, like Pishi and Bijli Bose, who are political rivals just like their real life counterparts. There is also reference to the game of cricket, with the practice sessions of team Kolkata Light Striders described in rib tickling fashion. The colloquial tone of Bengal is made to full use and is amusing. Technology advancement over the decades is also shown, with cars that can talk, think and interrogate.
The conversations between Li and his ex – wife Gao Yu are fun, and at times we feel that the two of them should get back together. However, these are just fleeting ideas as the author quickly shifts to other parts of the narrative. The novel is full of events and references. Maoists have established their strong hold over Junglemahal, a fake fish shortage has created disturbances among the people, while the temple of Kalighat is being destroyed. These events and their associated characters are the strength of this book. Unfortunately, there are a few missing ingredients to what initially seemed like a delectable dish.
The story lacks a well-coordinated plot, something that would heighten your curiosity and make it a page – turning experience. Sadly, though the individual chapters often shine thanks to their characters, humour and narration, they fail to form a balanced bigger picture. Thus, often it feels that you are reading a series of anecdotes, and not a complete novel. The integration among chapters and events are lacking, and more focus on it would have led to better experience.
‘Murder With Bengali Characteristics’ comes laden with its own share of expectations. It delivers on some fronts, while lacks the approach in a few. However, it must be read for the ideas that it brings forth, and the unique narration. The humour shouldn’t be missed, and the pages do manage to bring out a few laughs and giggles.