I received this book courtesy of Random House India for review purposes.
To begin at the beginning. The first book in the series of the Vish Puri files had a wonderful cover design, as did the second. This book cover however seemed to be completely bland and lackluster by comparison. The story was set in UP, Lucknow and Agra and I can name numerous subjects that could be highlighted in the cover design, the Taj Mahal being the most obvious. And yet, all this cover offered was two peacocks sitting by Vish Puri’s head. It’s so clichéd to have peacocks depicting India. The first two covers definitely captured the essence of the story, this one not so much or rather not at all. It’s as if the artist had no idea what the story was about and happily chose the one universally acknowledged motif of India to appease the audience. Maybe we should just be thankful he didn’t incorporate ‘nauch’ girls too.
Not an auspicious beginning.
However, as I have said before in an earlier review about the Vish Puri files, there is no getting away from the fact that the author truly understands India. He understands the language, the mannerisms, the give-and-take attitude, and the family interactions and so on. What was missing in this book was the humour that was so wonderfully spun out in his first books. I can’t really blame him, since India is a country that forces everyone into a debate about what is the most important change that needs to take place before anything else. For some it may be caste, for others poverty, for some religious conversions, and for some-that hallmark of Indian society-corruption. As a journalist, it is therefore not surprising to see the author get involved with the social issues that are staring him in the face in this country, but it does take away a bit of the fizz from the story.
So, the story is about an organization called the love commandos, who help people of different castes and religion get married. When the groom of the girl they have just whisked away from under the nose of her father disappears from their safe-house, Vish Puri’s assistant Facecream, who is secretly moonlighting as a love commando, calls him for help. The groom, Ram, is from the Dalit untouchable’s caste and the girl is an upper-caste Thakur. Indians reading this will definitely shake their heads in commiseration because even though we may be highly educated and urbane in the way we dress and speak and behave, caste is one shackle we still haven’t been able to break away from. As a Rajput married to a Brahmin, I freely admit that even after almost 6 years of marriage we still have skirmishes where we blame each other’s caste for the shortcomings in one another’s brain activity. Trust me, Brahmin’s are just too snooty by half. I have known higher caste women wed to lower caste men, madly in love with their husbands and yet feeling humiliated on touching the feet of the boy’s relatives believing it to be beneath them. It’s just something that will take its time to go away since it has been such an integral part of our society for centuries. Eventually, with inter-marriage and better education and a simple need for self-preservation, I am sure Hindus will rise above these petty prejudices, like we have managed to do with sati and widow-remarriage.
Vish Puri doesn’t believe in this inter-caste marriage thing and I don’t blame him at all, most people his age won’t. But he still comes forward to help Facecream, his employee, which is a prime example of the loyalty of Punjabi’s to their friends. As the chase moves through the UP countryside, new and varied characters keep popping up making the story a bit cluttered. The author lacked his signature brand of humour in this book, when he got caught up in explaining the caste injustices occurring every day in UP. Like I said before, you can’t fault him in that as it is but natural for a writer to try and make his readers aware of a way of life they may never have heard about or about injustices occurring on a daily basis in a part of the world that was at one time the greatest seat of learning and prosperity in the world. Its just that it became a bit boring after a while and I missed Vish Puri’s one liners and eccentric behaviour.
What saved the day for me was Mummyji in detective mode. This was a story moving parallel to the one in UP. Mummyji and Vish puri’s wife have gone on a trip to Vaishno Devi in Jammu and en-route solve the mystery of Vish Puri’s stolen wallet along with the robbery at the shrine. Again, I must applaud the author for the authentic depiction of the journey to Vaishno Devi and of the belief that seems to draw people, rich, poor, young or old, like a magnet. Mummyji is over-bearing, pushy and ready with unsolicited advice for all and sundry and yet she is a surprisingly good mother-in-law, which is a commodity as rare as flowers in the desert, and extremely shrewd to boot. In real life, someone like Mummyji and me would be at constant loggerheads but I loved reading about her in the story, her interactions with her son, her grand-nephews, her daughter-in-law, her relatives in Jammu and others. The infamous ‘Sweetie’ was a hilarious touch and mostly true.
One major grouse I have with the author is the depiction of our national anthem in English! I think it was a gross oversight. It should have been printed in Hindi and then translated in English. The author has done it so many times all through the book, writing phrases in Hindi and then translating them in English, that how he could have missed this is beyond me. For one second, my heart completely stopped as I tried to make sense of the lines following ‘sang the national anthem’. Some things are truly sacred, and the author is someone who does seem to understand that concept, and must be treated as such. What surprises me is that nobody pointed this out to him. Not his editors, his proof-readers and all the other people in the chain between the author and the printer’s block. I really hope he corrects this in the reprints of this book.
My verdict, if you haven’t read Tarquin Hall till now, is to begin from the beginning of the series. This one is more serious and political as compared with the earlier versions, but a good read nonetheless.
Would I read the next Vish Puri file? Definitely.