Mulch and murder

There’s a bit of humour right on the first page — Detective Lalli’s niece-narrator Sita informs us about a recently concluded case: “The Sada Suhagan affair had ended badly”.

I chuckled and continued to read with heightened anticipation of a humour-laced whodunit in the style of old favourites like Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, the Jessica Fletcher mysteries and was glad initially to find that Kalpana Swaminathan’s fifth Lalli novel seemed promising enough, new though I was to this detective.

Sadly, for this reviewer at least, The Secret Gardener lost the plot towards the end. Too many characters crowd up a bizarre denouement in the drawing room-revelation style of a Poirot; a stylishly told tale left me feeling less than satisfied.

Yet, it all began and continued promisingly enough. The mystery clocked along at a good pace and one did not have the urge to put it down. There was enough to keep this reader’s interest alive — ensemble cast of quirky characters (including Maruti the gardener, Arifa the bald hair-dresser, others); wry observations on life (a posh cubicle in a multi-storied office is described as “an anteroom that felt like the better class of padded cell”); ‘local’ humour — narrator Sita is engaged in ghost-writing the memoirs of a worthless tycoon, “all for the sake of sinful stomach”; and most importantly for the mystery buff — a red herring or two, plus a seemingly plausible plot that meandered but still survived the course.

The story’s bare bones: a newly reworked garden in an abandoned cottage throws up a small piece of human skull bone that lands in the hands of Dr Q, police surgeon friend of Lalli L R (for Last Resort), ex-Mumbai police, feisty, sixtyish detective-consultant.

Garden loving Dr Q is somewhat aware about the abandoned cottage and its last occupant, his lily-like vision, the constant gardener, face unseen, she turns out to be the late Varsha, two years earlier wife to Anil Chauhan; the latter is now stepfather to Jai and husband of Priya, the new family attempting to settle into the cottage. A dying gigolo mentions an address that turns out to be this very place — which continues to reveal more from the past, even as suspicious grandparents and warring spouses consult Lalli for their own ends — who is determined to unearth the garden’s secrets and help bring peace into a (secretly) tortured child’s life. The churned up soil and reworked garden seem to be some sort of a metaphor for the messy lives of its protagonists. Interesting enough, but after a point, some confusion and exhaustion sets in as one tries to keep track of the various intermingling stories.

What keeps the reader going is the writer’s skillful language (“soaking in the soft sunlight lapping the tasseled trees”), wisdom, humanity and humour. Inspector Shukla’s earthy banter is often amusing; he talks about human decomposition being aided by fauna: “Food chain ulta. We think we are on top, but we are lowest.”

Narrator Sita seems to have almost as large a part to play as chief detective Lalli with her thought process and actions. Sita’s encounters, in fact, are quite entertaining — we find her continuously cooking, feeding the small itinerant army that keeps trooping into the flat where the detective and her niece reside together.

Food is in fact a recurrent motif, right up to the revelatory climax. Occasionally, it is used to lighten mood amidst the grimness of dark revelations — Sita’s vanilla-bean flavoured toffee-coffee finds Inspector Shukla eyeing the vanilla with suspicion and going back to report “that I had stuck a dried gawar in the milk.”

As with all such stories, the plot weaves from present to past to present again, revealing characters, motives, actions that astound, even horrify — leaving the quietly ticking Lalli brain to anticipate and attempt to understand seemingly ordinary humans and their extraordinary decisions. Perhaps the doctor-author has been privy to various forms of human frailty and venality; hence this gory tale that to a more sheltered person may seems bizarre and slightly unbelievable.

There is also the physical difficulty latent in certain actions from a protagonist, relevant to the final revelation. And the husband comes across as too much of a wimp; probably his easy-going attitude is needed to channel the strange tale along certain lines.

Forensic procedures and gardening material (pest killing cyanide sprays, manure) are used to skillfully weave a fairly plausible tale. It was in fact news to this reader, the following bit, that “cyanide residues are not detectable for long in human remains.”
I felt too that the tale was not watertight; an important character gets conveniently killed in an accident. But what if that person had lived on?

Inconvenient questions aside — this almost Shakespearean tragedy cum cautionary tale is still a book worth a read.

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