Inspector Singh investigates : A curious Indian cadaver by Shamini Flint

Inspector Singh, of the Singapore police force, might just have to look to his laurels.  Courtesy, of all unlikely people, his wife, Mrs. Singh.

In this funny, laugh-out-loud 5th instalment of the Inspector Singh series, we see the Malaysian-Singaporean Sikh going to India for the first time, to attend, of all unlikely things for such an anti-family man, a family wedding.

His wife’s family, of course.

Still on enforced sick leave after his Cambodian escapades, the good detective has no excuse for not attending the wedding of his wife’s first cousin’s daughter.

This is a high-society arranged marriage, a concept alien to Inspector Singh, but not to his good wife:

“I told you, my cousin’s daughter. Very smart girl. A scientist working for some big company here in Mumbai. And now they found her a good boy.

A smart girl and a good boy. A match made in heaven. It was a curious element of Indian culture that men and women were still ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ until they had achieved the state of matrimony.  So much for driving licences, the right to buy cigarettes or vote. None of these were sufficient indication of a graduation into adulthood. Only holy matrimony. The girl would probably have been described by her skin colour, ‘fairness’ being an Indian obsession.

‘I meant what sort of person is he?’

‘How would I know that?’ asked Mrs Singh, sounding astonished. ‘ I’ve never met him before.’

‘The girl then –what about her?’

‘My niece – Ashu Kaur. She paused for a moment. ‘Very fair girl.”

Soon after their arrival in Mumbai, there is a suspicious death, and Inspector Singh is plunged headlong into an investigation that includes questioning many of his wife’s family.  While the Inspector tramps the dirty streets of Mumbai, lamenting the damage being done to his trademark white sneakers, Mrs. Singh stays close in the bosom of her traumatised family – and becomes, de facto, her husband’s source on the inside.

In her earlier Inspector Singh books, Ms Flint has always used the clever device of an assistant/sidekick/translator who helps the Singaporean policeman on his foreign jaunts.  This local assistant provides the detective (and we the readers) with an insight into a different society, and is the foil against which Inspector Singh views and judges the new country.

Enter Mrs. Singh, a regular visitor to India, a recent convert to the internet and the joys of Google, and now an expert on all things Indian.  She explains the country of which she is uncritically proud to her sceptical, querulous husband, who realises pretty early on that although he may look the part, he is actually 100% foreign.

“Singh gripped the trolley on which his small bag and Mrs. Singh’s ample suitcase were purchased with both hands and tried to look like a native of India. After all, he had the props for the part – the turban, the beard, the gut – except that the genuine article seemed able to peg him for a foreigner immediately. Perhaps it was the fear in his eyes that was visible to the observant.  How else to explain the various solicitations being shouted at him as he used his trolley as a barricade. He would soon have to use it as a weapon. Maybe if he ran one of these fellows over the rest would give up trying to attract his attention with loud shout and shirt tugs.”

Mrs. Singh wants only to prove to her husband that India is modern.  And better than China.

I don’t like flying, especially the taking off and landing bits,’ he explained, more to distract himself than anything. His wife knew very well his dislike of being airborne.

‘Nothing to be afraid of. Many new private airlines in India because country is a huge economic success, even bigger than China,’ said his wife, self appointed oracle of India.

Inspector Singh was always suspicious of exponential growth in any industry but particularly the gravity – defying ones. Did they have the pilots for the rapid expansion? Did all the new employees know what they were doing or were they dancing through the skies with the insouciance of mosquitoes?”

It is a masterstroke making this thin, sharp-tongued woman her husband’s assistant, for not only does it make for great humour, it also allows us to get to know Mrs. Singh better.  She finally steps out from her husband’s shadow, and becomes a brilliant character in her own right.

“One friendly Sikh, and suddenly they were all part of the Sikh brotherhood. Singh was always impressed at his wife’s ability to draw large conclusions from infinitesimal pieces of evidence. She’d fit right into the Singapore police murder squad.”

Like any first time visitor to Mumbai, the good Inspector is taken aback at the smell, the dirt, the crowds, the noise.

“In every direction, punctuated randomly with crumbling concrete structures, spread a vast shanty town, the predominant colours of which were rust and festive patches of blue. He suddenly realised that the blue was industrial tarpaulin, used like Scotch tape to plug holes, drape gaps and cover leaking roofs. In another world, like Singapore, the flashes of blue would have been the swimming pools of rich men.

Singh was distracted by a strong and unpleasant smell that suddenly pervaded the aeroplane. He sniffed cautiously, protruding nostril hairs quivering. It didn’t smell like burning fuel or melting plastic or any of those olfactory sensations that would have caused him to make a dash for the exits.

He turned to Mrs Singh who was reading the in-flight magazine with the disdain of one who preferred to Google her subjects rather than have them pre-elected by an editor.

“What’s that stink?’ he whispered.

“India,’ she answered succinctly…”

Other than eating good authentic Indian food, Inspector Singh has very few desiderata.  Avoid Delhi belly and have a ride in an Ambassador car, basically.

‘Still, the food was bound to be good, spicy curries galore, if you could avoid getting ill with ‘Mumbai belly’ or ‘Delhi belly’ or ‘whichever part of India you happened to be’ belly.’

Ambassadors, alas, are not to be part of his Mumbai experience :

“No Ambassador?’ he asked plaintively.

‘Phased out, saar.’

Singh grunted his disappointment.

All this industrialisation and development that his wife kept harping on about apparently meant that the famous old vehicle had been consigned to the scrapheap. What else had India lost in its desire to impress Mrs Singh?’ 

The plot is a clever one, keeping us guessing until the very last pages, and the ending is unexpected.  But then, Ms Flint’s endings always are.  What a clever writer she is.

Quick aside – I live in India, and happen to know Mumbai pretty well, having lived there for several years, and so can attest to the veracity of the writer’s observations and descriptions.

What an accomplished story teller Ms Flint is, putting her finger so easily and yet so firmly on the pulse of India :

But Leopold’s, even since the attacks, especially since the attacks, was where he and his ilk belonged: the young of Mumbai, the future of India with their imported cars, Italian shoes, tailored Nehru jackets and, in his case, matching turban. Religious trappings as a fashion accessory. It was a strange world which ever way you looked at it.

The matching turbans and Nehru jackets are not unique to Mumbai, and up here in Delhi (where I live) they are very much a definite “statement” way of dressing.

Ms Flint is spot on.

Another great read, an exciting whodunnit, an exuberant foray into India and weddings and religion and progress and poverty.

And, of course, we get to spend more time with Mrs. Singh.

As I said at the outset, the good Inspector might just have to look to his laurels.

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