What caught my attention when I first heard of the Vish Puri trilogy of novels (hat tip to my friend Bhavika for recommending them to me) were the quirky titles: The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, and The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken. Written by British freelance journalist Tarquin Hall, the trilogy is about Vish Puri – “India’s Most Private Investigator” – and outlandish mysteries that have been solved by him. Think of Vish Puri as an Indian version of Sherlock Holmes, although it’s a comparison that causes much chagrin to the detective who dismisses Holmes as a “veritable upstart”.
(You may have heard of Tarquin Hall’s book Salaam Brick Lane, which, along with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, is one of the best pieces of literature on Asian culture in Britain in my opinion.)
Each novel has a colourful premise: an investigation into the “character” of boy matched for ‘arranged’ marriage, a missing servant in a wealthy family, a prominent scientist murdered by an apparition of the Hindu goddess Kali, the father of a Pakistani cricketer poisoned at a high-society. Assisting Vish Puri in his investigations is an ensemble cast of minions with bizarre code names such as “Facecream”, “Handbrake”, and “Tubelight” and a plethora of relatives you would expect of a stereotypical Indian “extended family”. There’s also Vish Puri mother “Mummyji”, who is a retired school principal and fancies herself as a bit of a detective too; for some reason, her description reminded me of Modern School Vasant Vihar’s principal Goldy Malhotra. Not quite sure whether that was indeed the inspiration!
The mysteries themselves are not hard to figure out – that’s not the allure of these novels. Novels about India tend to fall into staid categories, either going for the foreign-born Indian returning home (The Namesake), or rural Indians on their journey climbing up in prosperity (The White Tiger, Life of Pi). Hall goes beyond the remit of a detective novel, providing insightful social commentary into the transformative changes that have been sweeping through India’s urban elite in the past two decades in a way that only an outsider – an expat – can. His descriptions of Delhi’s Punjabi culture are written with local speech mannerisms that do come across as forced at times, but the pace and light-hearted tone of the novels keep the reader engaged. (Oh, and the descriptions of food! That’s partly what made be yearn coming back to India last year in winter.)
While Vish Puri may not be able to dethrone Satyajit Ray’s Feluda novels for the crown of best Indian fictional detective, he is a colourful enough character to make it worth an enjoyable read. Also, Tarquin Hall’s blog is quite funny.