Molagapodi, mallipoo and murder

Molagapodi, mallipoo and murder

Despite its many flaws, this novel is a masterclass in how to weave a culture and its nuances into a story of crime.

Raagam Taanam Pallavi

Crime stories are victims of format — quirky investigators, a knife-edged opening scene and a body, typically of someone multiple people prefer dead. The plot line and language are meant to be as simple as the minds in need of that armchair sleuthing fix. Bucking the format is near impossible: any crime fiction that does, automatically rises high on my charts.

At its heart, this is a book about those you know and value versus the hordes; the tyranny of the gross over those who are sensitive. The title Raagam Taanam Pallavi immediately warns us this is a molagapodi-mallipoo kind of book. It is personally frustrating to find lines of other languages creep into books in English and it reinforces the belief that only a poor writer needs the crutch of another language. Yet how Tamizh flows in and out of the breathless plot is almost a masterclass in how to weave a culture, its nuances and hues into an essentially Indian book with an essentially Indian crime at its core.

‘Brilliant but no brain’

Some writers almost hypnotise the readerly reluctance to venture where they haven’t before to let go, let the author drag them where she will. In the maze of the author’s creation, an erudite guide is needed to traverse this unfamiliar terrain. Peopled with beautifully framed characters, detailed descriptions of the uniquely Tamizh Murugan festival of Panguni Uthiram at Ambarnath, literary allusions scattered like pearls and an astute narrator, all combine to make this a book of delights. Relief is also provided by the colloquial quirks of the team of Inspector Shukla and SI Shaktivel, especially the road signs in rhyme. Or the oft-repeated, “he is brilliant but no brain”.

The book plunges straight into a bewildering subgroup of the police force. Until the very end, no clue why the narrator leans her head tenderly against Savio on numerous occasions just as there’s no clue to Dr Q’s real name. No relations are spelt out and yet so much is conveyed, about these characters as well as the specific milieu of Mumbai’s Mahim-Matunga belt. There is a quest as well. A killer is on the loose and though everything points to the deranged and incoherent Senthil nabbed in blood-soaked clothes, this has as many twists as a crisp kai murukku.

Standard quirks

‘No. I don’t think I can. I don’t know what to say to him. I can’t meet his eye. This is not the boy I know.’

‘I want to see if you are the man he knows.’

Some standard tropes of potboilers appear in the plotline: an inaccessible memory of being accessory to a murder, confusion over the identity of a corpse, an open-and-shut case that doesn’t add up or a missing twin who pops up with the predictability of a red herring.

Those who pick crime writing for the straight-line narrative and straitjacketed procedures may be disappointed by how full and rich the language is. Mostly it’s a treat to the senses, yet there is danger in that too. A page and a half on orange versus mosambi taxes the patience of even the most indulgent reader. And this is where the lack of skilful editing harms the book.

“Orange compels the crossword. Mosambi makes you look up from your book. Orange has the texture of kanjivaram silk, a slide of luxury against the skin. Mosambi is muslin, it entraps you in its mesh of light.” Not when there is blood and gore, when the task at hand is to nab a murderer. No.

The end, when it comes after a good 280 pages, is unfortunately a damp squib. All that gorgeous writing, the minutiae, the little parcels of thrill wrapped in nimble turn of phrase: none compensate for a crime that evokes too little horror. The energies have been dissipated more on the form than the substance.

The blackest sin at the heart of the book is only insipidly conveyed. There is some steering in the direction of a mother’s grief. Everything else seems to fold and fade:
even the corpses that dot this grisly whodunnit.

All that remains are the sounds of the Carnatic raagamalika, splendorous temples and a quirky bunch of sleuths in our minds and hearts.

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