MIDNIGHT AT MALABAR HOUSE by VASEEM KHAN

As though the fabulously creative and loveable Baby Ganesh series were not enough, the talented Vaseem Khan has now given us yet another wonderful Indian detective, and I am already a huge fan.

Introducing Inspector Persis Wadia, India’s first woman detective.

We are in Bombay, in the tumultuous, heady days following Indian independence from the British. Persis is a highly intelligent, outspoken 27 year-old Parsi, and faced as she is with hostility from some of her male colleagues and dismissive patronising from others, it is little short of amazing that she retains her keen sense of duty and her tireless work ethic.

Inspector Wadia is the officer on duty on 31 December 1949, in Malabar House, the south Bombay HQ of CID when a call comes through reporting a murder. A prominent British expatriate has been found dead at his own New Year’s Eve costume ball, and the case is hers. She is unruffled at the thought of investigating this high-profile murder, whereas her kindly & supportive senior officer regards it as more of a poisoned chalice:

“Do you remember the day Gandhi was shot? I was with a Muslim colleague when we heard the news. He practically swooned into my arms. Because, of course, he, like the rest of us, thought that the assassin had to be a Muslim. Can you imagine the terror that would have unleashed? It was a relief to us all when word began to spread that the killer was, in fact, a Hindu. But then, all the Hindus began to panic that it was one of their own. Their caste, their tribe, their community. We are a country of a million factions each more than ready to point the finger of blame elsewhere.” He sighed. “These are turbulent times, Persis. Uncertainty makes people anxious. No one wants to be left holding the baby. And you have just brought the baby home with you.’

Persis stiffened. “All I ask is that I be allowed to do what I have been trained for.”

“You’re an ambitious woman. But ambition has been known to sinkhole nations.
Her eyes flashed.”Is ambition a virtue in a man and a vice in a woman?”

Seth’s eyes softened. “I did not say that. I have three daughters. India is changing, Persis, but it is not yet ready to be told that it is wrong. At least not by a woman.”

And here we have it, in the opening chapters of this great detective story – the battle lines that Inspector Wadia must face. She is a young woman, and men do not wish to take orders from her.

This exchange takes place in the first few days of January 1950.

Reading them, in India (where I live), in late 2020…I have to say that in some ways nothing has changed.

I exaggerate, of course.

There have been many brilliant and senior women in places of great responsibility in this country, but there is still a mindset in India that men are superior to women.

Will you permit me one short digression?

Let’s listen, shall we, to the words of the Chief Minister of India’s biggest and most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where a young woman died last week after a horrific gangrape. (I’m writing this review in the first week of October 2020).

Six years back, Adityanath had written an essay on the role of women in Indian culture on his website Matrushakti Bharatiya Sanskriti Ke Sandharbh Mein. Adityanath made a case in the essay that women required protection and should not be allowed independence, as “it may lead to wastefulness or destruction of women”.

He wrote, “Shastras have talked about giving protection to women. Just like urja (energy) left free and unchecked causes destruction, women also don’t need independence, they need protection. Their energy should be channelised to be used productively.”

One of the reasons this particular rape and death has become so politically charged in India is that it was yet another caste-based atrocity – where upper caste men rape and kill lower caste women, with seeming impunity.

I refer you to Seth’s comments about India being a country of a million factions.

So, yes, the opening pages of this book set out quite clearly and firmly the dynamics of India, the fault-lines of India, and the uphill struggle Persis will have as she tackles this high-profile death.

From the start her colleagues are ambivalent about working with/for her, and none more so than the insufferable Hemant Oberoi:

“Hemant Oberoi represented everything that was wrong with the force. The very worst aspects of male arrogance, ignorance and privilege distilled into the body of a single man. He held from a wealthy Brahim and family, the scion of a former royal, according to one rumour. He certainly acted like it, swanning around the place as if he were some exiled Balkan aristocrat merely passing time on an island prison before being returned to his rightful throne.”

Did you notice the reference to the fact that he is a Brahmin? Yet again that million factionalism again…

Oberoi bitterly resents the fact that Persis has been assigned the case.

“She took the call,” said Seth. “It’s her case.

She is standing right here”, said Persis coldly. “Anything you have to say you can say to me.”

Oberoi turned to her. “You don’t deserve this case.”

“And you do?”

“I’ve been in the service longer than you.”

“Just because a cow stands in a field all day doesn’t make it a philosopher.”

How can you not root for young Persis, when she has such great rejoinders?

What I especially like about Persis is that she isn’t a “stereotypical” Parsi. She is no blind supporter of the British or a believer in Western superiority. On the contrary, she is strongly and proudly patriotic:

I’ll say one thing for the British,” muttered Birla. “They knew how to keep records.

Of course they did, said Persis. “They wanted to know exactly how much they could steal and from whom.

She is also broad-minded on the whole Muslim-Hindu question, an issue which, terrifyingly, is still a central fault line in 21st century India.

But in the aftermath of the bloody, murderous horrors of Partition, when Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India were formed, her outspokenness is breathtaking:

“Well, those Muslims are getting it in the neck now,” piped up Acharya. “I hear conditions are terrible in their Land of the Pure, this Pak-i-stan.”

“Some might say the same for many Muslims in India,” said Persis. Her hackles were up. Perhaps it was the odour of ignorance and un thinking partisanship. “We’ve hardly made them welcome.”

“Welcome!” Acharya snorted in disgust. “Subversives and ingrates. If it had been up to me, I would have rounded up the lot of them and dumped them over the border. Let them live in their stinking new country. Leave India to the real patriots.”

“You mean Hindus?”

But this acerbic young woman is also very open-minded and realistic about her country’s problems and is not blind to the truth:

“Persis shivered. One thing freedom hadn’t changed was the city’s squalor, squalor that sat side-by-side with magnificence. Bombay was a study in such contrasts, stratified into distinct layers by caste, wealth and social mores. A Brahmin would no more entertain the idea of sitting down to eat with a Dalit than a Parsee would marry off his daughter to a non-Zoroastrian. The fractious unity engendered by the revolution had evaporated during the communal rioting; the post-independence turmoil had seen the old petty prejudices reassert themselves with a vengeance.”

Once again Mr. Khan, through the voice of Persis, shines a spotlight on the many issues in Indian society – issues that, to a large extent, are still present, 70 years after this story.

As Persis investigates the death of Sir James Herriot, she teams up with Archie Blackfinch, a quiet Englishman who is a criminalist from Scotland Yard. Archie gamely takes her outspokenness on the chin. There are even moments when you feel sorry for the poor young man, such as this great exchange as they set out for Punjab by train, as part of their investigation:

“It’s magnificent isn’t it?” said Blackfinch eventually.

“What is?”

“These old trains. There is a sense of majesty, history. Decadence, dare I say. Makes one proud to be British.”

“The British built these trains so that they could plunder the subcontinent. Tens of thousands of Indians died to build them. The rails are literally soaked in blood.” That strangled the conversation for a while.

Persis doggedly investigates the death of the British diplomat, despite the political fall-out of her questioning people who are not used to being questioned, people who think their wealth and privilege can protect them from most things.

This is a smashing book – a historical detective story with a devilishly clever twist in the closing pages.

Thoroughly recommended.

Can’t wait for the next case that Inspector Wadia will tackle, in her own quick-witted, outspoken way.

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