The book’s main character is Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator, who is often helped—against his wishes—by his mother (the formidable Mummy-ji) and his wife. All three characters are vivid, with the two women being more than a match for Puri. Puri enjoys his food, and I suspect so does the author, Tarquin Hall, judging from the way he writes about Puri’s meals, which include aloo paratha, chola bhatura and, of course, deadly butter chicken (without the poison).
Although the books in this series are fairly light, this particular one is a bit darker. It describes not only the world of illegal betting, as well as match-fixing and corruption in cricket, but also the partition of India in 1947 and its ghosts that continue to haunt the living.
The story starts with Puri and his family at a dinner after an India-Pakistan cricket match. At the dinner, Farheem Khan, the father of Pakistan’s cricketing star, chokes on his butter chicken (which is apparently poisoned) and dies. Whoever did this had deliberately targeted the older Khan because no other guests who ate butter chicken that evening suffered any ill effects.
While Puri thinks the murder has to do with match-fixing—he has seen the older Khan sneak away to meet with a man who gave him money—Mummy-ji has other ideas. Knowing that Puri will never let her get involved, she decides to carry out her own investigation. Using the excuse of making a pilgrimage, she travels to Haridwar to look into the antecedents of some of the dinner guests.
Meanwhile, Puri travels to Pakistan partly to chase up the match-fixing lead. Forced to face his prejudices about the country, he realizes it isn’t very different from India (he manages, in Lahore, to get some kadahi ghosht and rogini naani). While there, Puri makes some surprising discoveries—about his Mummy-ji.
The book deals with an aspect of the subcontinent’s partition that isn’t widely known. During the communal violence, young girls were sometimes kidnapped and made to change their religion—to Islam in Pakistan; Hinduism in India—before being forcibly married off. Following independence, the two nations signed a treaty allowing women from each other’s countries to cross the border to look for these girls and bring them back home. The women who volunteered for this work risked their lives: if caught, they would not have been spared, even though they had the support of the authorities. (Hall recommends Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence on this).
With its stories of people who lived through things no one should ever go through, the impression this book made on me has stayed longer than the others in this series. But the book is also a call for an end to prejudice and hatred, and a testament to the fact that peoples split by war can, somehow, still find a way to come together. A message that is good to remember today when so many areas of the world seem to be exploding.
When I first read this series, I was convinced they were written not just by an Indian, but by someone from Delhi. But the author is actually British, and—not surprisingly—has lived in Delhi. He gets the Delhi lingo perfectly and brings this city to life, with all its sights, sounds, smells and, of course, its people.