Shetective : Sudha Gupta Investigates by AMBAI

Ever wondered how the word ‘detective’ almost instantly flashes names of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and not of Miss Marple or Bengal’s very own Mitin Mashi? Of late, the idea of the unequal representation of gender in detective fiction has come to the forefront and it is only then that readers have started recalling the names of women investigators who are value additions to this long list of sleuths. C. S Lakshmi or Ambai, India’s very own feminist writer and researcher on women studies, has contributed to Tamil Literature in volumes and has also fictionalized Sudha Gupta, another shetective who solves crimes in a jiffy. Gupta’s cases often reflect the feminist issues that Ambai herself champions for. Her cases are beyond the usual couples-trailing-each-other-due-to-suspicion-types!

I recently read the entire Sudha Gupta investigates series, which consist of three short stories. Ambai brings to forefront social evils, emotions, hidden trauma, and desires through her thrillers which are commendable, as it shifts the usual detection scenes from the monotonous dark and shady backgrounds to issues under bright daylight!

A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge 

A perfect introduction to Sudha Gupta and her work is what readers would get a glimpse of in this book. A mother, a wife, and an extremely talented sleuth, Sudha is on her way to wrap up two cases when she chances upon an old lady at the Andheri station. When almost after a span of eight hours, the lady still sits in the station; Sudha’s grey cells are triggered. What unravels next is the mystery of the old lady and how she came to be at the Andheri station. Would Sudha’s talent, empathy, and compassion help the woman in realizing her dreams or will she be entrapped in the web of worldly duties till the end of her days?

Ambai positions women’s desire, especially in their old-age as the prime theme of the story. A woman spends all her life serving her husband and the family and yet, does she truly have the freedom to take any decisions for herself? Interestingly, if a woman tries to choose an unconventional path, more often than not she is labeled as a mentally unfit individual. Ambai focusses predominantly on individualistic characters and the fact that being different is not equal to being mental. A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge brings to the forefront the conditions of the senior citizens living in Mumbai and the whole of India per se; and how often they are ignored with the existence of their wish list being a mortal crime.

The Paperboat Maker

A chance request by Sudha’s house help to investigate a prospective groom for her daughter leads to open an array of questions. Simultaneously, when a woman requests trailing her husband who mysteriously disappears every night, Sudha finds herself on the crossroads of examining the same story through two different angles. Is the prospective groom really clear of all blemishes or does he harbors a secret? Is the woman’s husband having a secret affair or is it more than meets the eye?  Will Sudha with her band of trusted loyalists be able to uncover the mystery?

Ambai needs to be commended for portraying the basic human needs as a natural phenomenon, instead of the usual hullabaloo which follows it. Women’s desires are often misconstrued by society and their mistakes are made a mockery of for generations. But Ambai introduces strong female characters in the story which makes the readers feel like nothing is truly amiss. It is also notable how her characters accept their identity and mistakes in life, as naturally as possible, and live with their heads held high. It is a reflection of the fact that honesty is the true revelation of one’s character.

As the Night Darkens

What happens when a couple’s weekend family outing becomes a nightmare for them? Gopal and Archana along with their four children take time off from their busy schedules. However, on the eve of the day they were to return, their three daughters go missing from the beach. While the police are hot on the trails of kidnapping and business rivalry, Sudha Gupta is also asked to come in and parallelly investigate the case by unearthing any useful information from Archana. But what the investigation team uncovers at the end, is a story from the past which has a relevant impact on the occurrences in the present.

Ambai deals with some of the themes which often occur behind closed doors and within a family. The stigma attached to these is so deep that more often than not, no one tries to claim justice. From a husband-fearing wife to a paedophilic, from instability in mental health due to prolonged abuse to victim fearing,  all that Ambai writes of, shake the very foundations of humanity and the world we live in.

Publisher: Juggernaut

Available on: Juggernaut App & Amazon


A Burning by Megha Majumdar

‘But this is no ordinary thief. This is a woman who attacked a train full of people. She killed, directly or indirectly, more than a hundred people. Now, the TV channels are reporting, she is silent in prison. She has granted no interviews. She has offered no details, and other than a confession, which she insists she was forced to sign, she has shared no information. She is protesting that she is innocent.’ 

Majumdar’s debut, A Burning, is a reflection of the classic dreams v/s ethics in a world where everyone is in a rat race to prove themselves. When Jivan, a young girl of twenty-two is arrested on the grounds of a simple Facebook text which is construed as a linkage to a popular terrorist group that burnt a train, killing hundreds at the Kolabagan Train Station; the readers get to see the true hypocrisy of the four estates of the State. Following her arrest, it is up to two of her acquaintances to testify and prove her innocence- the enigmatic Hijra, Lovely who dreams of one day ruling the screen with her acting prowess and her PT Teacher who saw the spark of a good athlete in her once. But will each testify proving Jivan innocent given that they have their own HUGE dreams in life?  A Burning not only symbolizes the burning train which indeed creates a trickle effect and starts the series of events but also the burning within the hearts of the lead characters to excel, to be noticed, to be free, to be popular – a burning which is to stay with them forever, even after the flames have dried up.

The simple story weaved around Jivan’s arrest and her fight with the law bares open the very many loopholes in the system. From political dictates shaping the lives of people to dreams consuming a person into self-obsession; to reportage which often manipulates stories to add in the desired bit of masala to it to make it eye-catching are all relatable. It is interesting to note how all the characters represent the outcasts in society. Jivan being a young Muslim school dropout from the lower class finds it difficult to make her truth heard. Her economic handicap proves to be the biggest hindrance in making people aware of her situation. Lovely represents the transgender community and yet strives very hard to excel in her acting classes so that one day she can become a popular actress. Despite having talent, her identity hinders her from achieving her dreams. It is indeed a pure irony that those the society considers being capable of blessing children and couples at ceremonies have to beg to the same society for being considered at par as a human. PT Sir on the other hand is considered as one in the reduced ranks of teachers with only a handful of occasions like Republic Day to prove his abilities while adjusting microphones for school occasions for the rest of the time. His inferiority complex of trying to become more than a partial teaching staff is finally given vent to when he chances upon a political rally and gets absorbed into politics.

A Burning is a story of the evolution of characters, society, dreams, and most importantly, ethics. It is indeed remarkable to see how the characters are built up by Majumdar throughout the novel. Even though the world is considered as a social community or a society, at the end of the day, to each his/ her own prevails. This individualistic nature of mankind is purely circumstantial and one cannot but wonder after all who is to be blamed- the social oppressor or the individual oppressed. Every character has a back story that pushes them forward to behave in the manner that they did throughout the story. Even if one sympathizes with Jivan, one cannot but not support Lovely and PT Sir too. After all, don’t individual aspirations, dreams and success come before any community or social goal?

The hollowness of the four estates- Legislation, Executive, Judiciary, and Media – is beautifully portrayed in the novel. How each of them is intertwined, maneuvered, and manipulated keeping in mind the cause at hand. More often than not for some powerful sections of the society to succeed in their power retention, many unknown faces are made to become political scapegoats. Media on the other hand really does not ease the tension by knocking on the doors of the oppressed and asking several questions- sometimes obnoxious ones. They are often trusted by the victims but many times the truth is shattered behind the tools of editing in accordance with media policies and politics!

This powerful debut talks about the burning away of emotions and ethics more than the burning train. It is a burning of the cowardice of the common people to bask in the deceit of disillusioned glory and power. It is the burning away of one’s morals which are taken over by suppressed hunger for power and fulfilling personal desires. A much-recommended book that serves as a mirror to contemporary society and how it is nothing short of a chessboard where people are but mere pawns in the hands of the four estates.

Publisher: Penguin Random House

No. of Pages: 289

Available at Your Nearest Bookstore and on Amazon & Flipkart

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Barff- Saurabh Shukla

Set amidst a scenic yet deserted village in the valleys of Kashmir, Barff is a story of one extraordinary night where a doctor, Dr. Kaul, is requested and fetched from the city to look into the health problems of Gulam Rasul’s son, Jigra. Gulam lives in this secluded village with his wife, Nafisa, and their only son. As it is difficult to get any amenities where they live, the Doctor was indeed a God-sent miracle.

Rasul from the very beginning is portrayed as a mysterious man. His words at times hold no meaning to an educated and practical country-doctor. But then will words like (translated to English) ‘no one else lives in the village’ or ‘ Nafisa and I light the lamps of all the houses of the village so that it seems it is inhabited’ make any sense to anybody? As the mystery builds up, the Doctor and Rasul make it to the latter’s house and meets his wife Nafisa and son- Jigra. What transpires next is impossible to comprehend or understand by practical minds.

Barff, originally written and performed as a play has been recently given the form of a book. This play by the renowned actor Saurabh Shukla is a cult thriller in the Hindi language. Thriller, it is believed is a very tricky genre. It takes a lot of hard-work in penning down a perfect thriller to appease the audience.  Furthermore, this is a genre definitely less explored in Hindi language or literature, especially in contemporary times. What is most interesting is that the author does not kill anyone to build up the atmosphere. Rather it has been very subtly done through the dialogues and conjuring up an apt atmosphere.

Rasul and his wife, Nafisa share a bickering yet loving bond as husband and wife. Rasul’s love for his wife is quite visible through his actions as often he ends up doing things which he knows at heart are wrong.  He gives Nafisa the independence to think and believe in what she wants to. The freedom of thought is indeed quite overpowering as one can feel as the story progresses.

Shukla touches on the themes of mental health and alternate reality through the play. The effect of mental health is portrayed not as much as on the person suffering through trauma but mostly on those surrounding them.  Post-reading the entire play what remains with me is the line (translated to English) – Reality is based on beliefs without which reality alone has no meaning. This definitely is food for thought. The idea of what is the reality in its truest sense has been beautifully explained in the story. Is reality always perceived literally in what is in front of a person; but then do people not have the right to choose what they want to literally see and therefore make their own world out of it? Further, he goes on to explore who decides the ultimate truth for a person – that individual or the onlookers; and if it is indeed the onlookers then who gives them the right to decide on someone else’s reality.

Barff connects with the readers on various intellectual levels. A simple mysterious atmosphere and a story of just one night elaborate some pertinent and yet unasked questions of life. What remains with the readers are not the characters, but the simplicity with which these complicated situations have been portrayed.  It also compels one to contemplate as to what is the way of life that one has been leading so far. In the literal sense, Barff translates to ice. Cold and freezing ice sets shivers up your spine once you touch it, just like the atmosphere of the story. Ice is used to heal hurt minds and bodies, just like the way the past of the characters soothe each other’s hurt minds. Moreover, when the ice melts it becomes water, a colorless and odorless shape-shifting liquid much like the way our thoughts never stay at one place and our ideas keep changing rapidly, molding itself with the situation in hand.

It is not every day that one reads a thriller, so aptly put, which explores the cultural milieu of Kashmir, gives food for thought, breaks the monotony with its perfect comic timing, and also highlights the effects of a war-torn state on its residents.  Although the book is in Hindi, it is worth a read. Shukla’s brilliance in the industry for decades has culminated into this wonderful script which definitely leaves a mark on the readers and compels them to visualize the world through renewed energy, understanding, and knowledge.

No. of Pages: 94

Publisher:  Rajkamal Prakashan

Available on: Flipkart/ Amazon

Rating: 4/5

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

Asne Seierstad, observes the day to day progress in the life of Sultan Khan – a bookseller in Kabul- and pens the nuances in The Bookseller of Kabul. Sultan, a dignified and righteous man owns a bookshop and fights to keep it running amidst a country torn by wars and political coups. His dream is to make resources available to every individual in the country-, especially for school-going children. What is appalling is the contrast of liberalism of sharing knowledge and the rules of staunch patriarchy displayed by Sultan. Through Sultan’s family, relations and their life, Seierstad puts forward the daily life of an Afghani individual, be it a man or a woman.

With Sultan being the strict disciplinarian and the perfect personification of the family patriarch, his family members follow his orders not by choice but by fear. His eldest son Mansur is forced to run his bookshop and other errands but wants to break free and complete his education. While his second son Eqbal, also dreams of going to school one day, his youngest, Aimul hasn’t even seen what a school looks like. It is indeed a paradox that a man who dreams of providing education to all children removes his own from schools prematurely. His sister’s marriage is a hurried giving away of an ‘object’ stored for too long at home. His mother is an institution of contemplation, living more in the past, than in the present. His youngest sister, Leila is a hard-working, unmarried, young girl who dreams of breaking the shackles of bondage and escaping someday for her own good. The narrative builds on these characters and takes the story forward.

The Bookseller of Kabul is a portal to a culture torn by politics and ruled over by men, almost untouched by modernity and equality in any form. Sultan, having been married for years and fathering three children with his first wife, goes out in search of his second wife. Every eligible daughter’s parents only want to give in to his demand and marry off their young girl despite a difference of several years because they want to gain a higher footing in the Afghan society by marrying off their daughter to a respected man. Sultan’s second wife ‘was petrified, paralysed by fear. She did not want the man but she knew she had to obey her parents. As Sultan’s wife her standing in Afghan society would go up considerably. The bride money would solve many of her family’s problems. The money would help her parents buy good wives for their sons.’  It is interesting to notice how brides are ‘bought’ almost as if buying clothes in the market- if one is worn out after a couple of years, get a new one! Love is a taboo with dire consequences like forced marriages, honour-killing, and even suicide. These pent up feelings of women which they are unable to put forth in the society often find their way into poems –‘Give me your hand, my loved one and we will hide in the meadow, To love or fall down beneath the knife stabs’.

The footing of a woman in  Afghan society is as good as being absent. In the male-heavy atmosphere, the voice of a lowly woman often gets lost. Such is the situation with Sultan’s youngest sister- Leila- who ‘often repeats herself, because she thinks she is not being heard’.  Following the storyline, it is quite obvious that the men of the family were applauded for the little things that they do and ‘the Khan family is not in the habit of celebrating women’.  Leila’s existence reflects the condition of thousands of women in a country where there exists no female individuality. They are only known to the society and the world as a shadow of ‘their men’.

While women have no voice of their own, men on the other hand, have both voice and domination that start from a very young age. Sultan’s eldest Mansur had been witness to his friend’s temptations at his own shop. Filled with guilt, he decides to make the arduous journey to Mazhar-e-Sharif to pray and beg for forgiveness. The description of the journey gives a respite to the readers as they can imagine the serene mountains and terrains of the country and not wonder at the ruthlessness of the people living in it. A shrine for contemplation, self-assessment, and pilgrimage becomes so beautiful a place to travel to, that Mansur gets engrossed in its pleasure and awe; and forgets the primary motive that brought him there. What gives him sleepless nights at first, gradually disappears from his mind altogether and a sin remains unacknowledged.

Sins and crimes are committed very often in Afghanistan. The socio-political condition, the rising poverty level, and an economy which will take years to recover, often lead men from poverty-stricken backgrounds to commit crimes such as theft, murder, or suicide. If caught, the penalty is also massive! But one needs to ponder as to who is to be blamed for the situation. And when someone tries to steal from Sultan, the consequences are disastrous for the criminal and his innocent family!

Hard-hitting, eye-opening and full of nuances of the Afghani culture, The Bookseller of Kabul is a picture of paradoxes between liberalism and patriarchy shown through the relation that Sultan shares with his family. A portrait of dominance over women, relationship, and poor; and of temptations over ethics, this book is a good read.

No. of Pages: 276

Publisher: Virago Press, Hachette UK

Availability: Amazon/ Flipkart

Rating: 3.5/5