A deliberately farcical novel

A deliberately farcical novel

Like many of the best crime writers, the author has identified a certain intriguing cultural/social theme on which to elaborate: an NRI setup in that promised land of chai lattes in the west — no, I’m not talking about Gujarat, but small-town America with its desi ishtyle corner shops. Such a setting is potentially rich with situations arising from problems to do with adjustment, relocation, and cultural difference.

The story’s premise is imaginative bordering on spaced out. An old Gujarati shopkeeper in Oregon hires a supari (a macho thug from Mumbai who doesn’t even wear undies) to eliminate the competition — a young, pretty Indian woman who walks like Helen has set up a grocery store, and she is wooing customers with generously displayed cleavage, fully aware of the “typical Indian male fancy with things mammary.”

Getting a visa for the Indian contract killer isn’t all that easy, so the shopkeeper finds two American redneck white-trash hooligans, and decides to make do. Only, one of them falls in love with his daughter (even though he feels that the Indian breakfast poha smells like “synthetic fart”), while the other develops a crush on the girl to be assassinated. The two hooligans turn out to be goofy clowns.

Meanwhile, the Mumbai bhai gets to the US as a kabootar with a folkloristic dance troupe, and nearly freezes his privates off as he only wears a dhoti with nothing under. He now sets his sights on killing the shopkeeper family for having broken the original supari contract.

The Betelnut Killers is a deliberately farcical novel; in fact it reads more like a script for a sitcom than a thriller for the first 200 pages, although it does pick up speed around page 201. I, perhaps unfortunately, tried to read this as a crime novel, but comical crime is tricky because slapstick elements tend to undermine the story. To pull off this subversive feat, there needs to be a strong undercurrent of plot development and well measured amounts of what John Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle”; information shouldn’t be dumped but woven into the text. Not for nothing was that adage coined by the masters: Show, don’t tell.

A pulp fiction reader expects to enter and be entertained, so the prose must be lean and fast. While editing one must, to quote Patricia Highsmith, be “as ruthless as if you were throwing excess baggage, even fuel, out of an overloaded airplane, as if it were a matter of life or death.”

Here the wisecracking manages to alienate the reader instead, almost in that Brechtian way of Verfremdungseffekt, but the trouble is that when we step back to get a better view of the text we merely see its cracks because the slapstick/sitcom nature of this novel doesn’t give us much else to look at. There are no great revelations and the screwball language isn’t fascinating enough to sustain attention.

Nevertheless The Betelnut Killers is lovable for its jolly attitude and I am quite sure that when it is turned into a motion picture, it will be good fun to watch.

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