BAD DAY AT THE VULTURE CLUB by VASEEM KHAN

The latest addition to the smashing Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series “Bad Day at the Vulture Club” is yet another wonderful read from the talented Vaseem Khan.

As in the earlier books, the sleuthing of Inspector Chopra (retd) and his unusual sidekick, his baby elephant Ganesh, bring to life the city of Mumbai in all her glorious, noisy, crowded chaos.

In this book, Inspector Chopra is hired by the daughter of a wealthy and influential Parsee to try and discover the truth behind his recent death, because she is unhappy with the quality and the findings of the Mumbai Police, for whom Inspector Chopra used to work.

Inspector Chopra takes up the investigation, criss-crossing the city in his little van with baby Ganesh in the back – and it is at this opportune moment that I repeat what I said in a previous review of this delightful series – Inspector Chopra had better watch out, because the adorable little elephant is a total scene-stealer.

For the record I live in India, and used to live in Mumbai, and am familiar with much of the excellent scene-setting in south Mumbai (less so in the suburbs, that feature in this story).

Mr. Khan describes the city with obvious affection, and his story-telling is so good that we never for a moment question the fact that a baby elephant can trot into a coffee shop and enjoy eating cream cakes while Inspector Chopra has a coffee. One of the joys of this book is the emerging character and intelligence of the mysterious baby elephant who was sent to Inspector Chopra by an uncle he hardly knew. Another joy is the almost universal acceptance of the elephant as he follows Chopra in and out of offices, and into lifts, and smart private clubs.

“Engineer led the way to the lifts, which they took up to the second floor. Ganesha bundled in beside them, squeezing Chopra against the mirrored rear wall.”

People accept Ganesha without (much) question, and usually react favourably to him – well, there is one great episode that almost ends in tragedy, when the little elephant unwittingly uncurls a rope on a boat, but by and large people just accept it as normal that an elephant wanders the streets of Mumbai, or sits on Marine Drive enjoying a cool drink with the good Inspector.

“Having parked the van on a busy side street, he picked his way deftly through the throng of morning commuters rushing to their offices, brandishing briefcases and lunch tiffins, jabbering on mobile phones, a heaving, Brownian motion of humanity flowing along the city’s streets. The fact that a small elephant accompanied him elicited almost no interest, aside from the occasional muttered oath as Ganesha prevented a would-be titan of industry from advancing along the road.”

There are so many wonderful Ganesha moments, that it is hard to pick a favourite, but the baby elephant playing with an industrial-strength floor polishing machine in a smart club is pretty special:

“Ganesha, trotting behind Chopra, was instantly beguiled by the thunderous piece of equipment, and padded forward to investigate. The ancient cleaner leaned on the handle watching him with interest.”

When Chopra has finished his meeting, he finds Ganesha happily head-butting the machine around the Parsee Club, while the cleaner is sitting down with a cuppa.

Mr. Khan paints a fascinating picture of Doongerwadi, the Parsee Towers of Silence in south Mumbai, that are a silent brooding presence in the city, and one I used to drive past regularly, when I would do the school run. I had no idea until I read this book that people actually lived inside the compound, and the descriptions of the woods surrounding the Towers are eery.

As well as investigating a possible murder in the Parsee community, there is a parallel theme in this book, thanks to Poppy, the Inspector’s much loved, very feisty wife. She is on a mission to help wipe out open defecation, a terrible blot on India’s health and image, and one which has been brought into the public domain thanks to various high-profile government campaigns. I must confess to never having heard of the Poo2Loo campaign – perhaps it never reached Delhi, where I live, but kudos to Mr. Khan for including a public interest aspect to his murder mystery.

As Poppy says, when she explains her involvement to her slightly sceptical husband:

“We spend so much time telling the world how incredible India is, I think we sometimes forget that for so many people it is anything but.”

Mr. Khan depicts Mumbai, warts and all, with accuracy and obvious affection.

A heart-warming, happy read (despite a murder being at the core of the story) and another chapter in the on-going affectionate salute to Mumbai that is at the heart of this series.

I don’t want to bore you with my Ganesha love, but let me share one final delicious anecdote, to end this review. A bad-tempered photographer, irritated that his film shoot is interrupted by Chopra & Ganesha, ends up enchanted by the little elephant :

“Chopra sighed.

The little elephant was notoriously fond of having his photograph taken. He knew, by now, that elephants possessed a range of human-like emotions; had he known that vanity was one of them he might have put his foot down when the young calf’s tendencies first exhibited themselves.

Ganesha,” he said sternly, “it’s time to go.”

“One more shot.” pleaded the director, who had clearly changed his tune. “He’s a natural.”

Chopra swung his gaze on to the stage where Ganesha was looking at him expectantly. His irritation drained away. “Very well. Just one more shot.”

What’s not to love in a vain baby elephant posing happily for photos?

Oh yes, sorry – and this is absolutely the final PS.

There’s also a vulture that lives with Poppy & Inspector Chopra for a while.

Told you – this is one fun read.

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