Book review: 'The Bangalore Detectives Club' - Elite membership!

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The novel is set in Bengaluru in the 1920s. (Image from the Macnabb Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

A book with a vibrant cover, a lady sleuth who plays Ms Marple (though a much younger version), Bangalore in the early 20th century, an expertly crafted plot, detailed depiction of patriarchy, caste and class – all woven into a beautiful story is The Bangalore Detectives Club!

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Author Harini Nagendra has not just brought out her prowess for words and information, but has moved out of her regular narrative to a style that overwhelms you with murder and mayhem!

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I loved the book as soon as I opened it to the old Bangalore map. Our city, as a part of the princely state of Mysore. Harini wastes no time in making me a member of the club at this stage itself. And then it’s a roller coaster ride with the Kaveri family (yes, I will call it after the female protagonist!).

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Kaveri and Ramu are a young couple, figuring themselves and their lives out, as they figure the unsolvable mystery of a murder in the vast lawns of the Century Club. Kaveri is infectious. She grows on you – is it the name, I wonder! Young, alive, active, agile, able, swift, scheming, conniving, plotting, challenging, empathetic, loving, caring, daring, doting – that’s our Kaveri!

Every page you turn in the book, you get closer to the couple and their surroundings, their families and their culture. As a storyline, Kaveri and Ramu are a young couple in Bangalore of the 1920s – wealthy, privileged and connected. In fact Ramu’s father is one of the founding members of the Century Club! On a pleasant evening (all evenings are usually pleasant in Namma Bangaluru), while they dine with Ramu’s colleagues from the Bowring hospital in the lawns of Century Club, a murderer from among them strikes. Ponnuswamy, a pimp from the Halasuru area, is murdered by a harsh blow on his head. A suspect goes missing, another falls prey to a life-threatening attack and a witness is attempted to be silenced! Kaveri follows the trail at every step and finally does get ahead of the murderer. It’s wonderful the chemistry she shares with the investigating officer Ismail and the duo quote Sherlock one too many times – “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

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A rapid chase to the murderer, through intense emotions, tears, anger and resilience all rolled into one Kaveri. She explores the city through the murder investigation and finally has a narrow escape herself at the end. Through this journey she starts alone, but soon has many join her club, whether it is Uma aunty next door, Ismail the officer, Mala who is framed for murder or Ramu, her proud doctor husband, they are all in it together.

The last few pages were a delight! The Kaveri’s dictionary and Kaveri’s Adventures in the Kitchen really speak of the level at which Harini is connected with her character. In some sense, it reminded me of how Agatha Christie was connected with Hercule Poirot.

I was super excited to see the start of the book with a quote from my favourite Agatha Christie murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles: “Instinct is a marvellous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” Like that moved a big needle for Christie, this too has high potential to do something significant for Harini.

Cut to the chase, let me review the book on the feminist connect for the reader. A brahmin lady dressed in traditional nine-yard brings an immediate connect to women of a certain class and background. That is the family of Kaveri.

Harini has tried to bring out gendered roles and status of women, but has also brought out intersectionalities of caste, class, religion, occupations (sex workers like Mala) and more. Strong reference to gendered roles post marriage – example, good married women will not do many things like wear a clingy wet garment, regular references to being the “wife of a respectable doctor”, married women should know their place or later when Kaveri and Ramu laugh at how their mothers would react if they knew that Ramu makes coffee for his wife.

There are classic references to various aspects of girls not being the owners of their bodies, how lives change after marriage, child marriage being an accepted fate for millions of girls, consent not even a part of the vocabulary of those days and irreverent comments like the height of a girl says a lot about her! Kaveri herself breaks these boundaries and stereotypes meticulously. From sneakily starting to study math (and remember girls are not supposed to be good at math!) to starting to learn swimming, getting herself swimwear, sleeveless clothes, learning to drive their car, visiting the house of a sex worker, breaking caste-based stereotypes and then fully being involved and solving the mystery of that period – she is a legend personified to perfection! She not only read the newspaper every day, but also had strong political views on the British Raj and applies to join the Indian National Congress. I loved the way she tells Ramu, her husband, to have her back when “she” asks for it!

Issues of social stigma like caste and caste-based occupations like sex work have also been highlighted well and how patriarchy penetrates like a dagger everywhere. “Respectable women from good families will have very little chance to know prostitutes, though respectable men from the good families will have a lot to do with them!” Harini nailed it here!

Harini has dealt with Kaveri well and that’s very understandable. What I like even more is the way she has brought out the maturity of the character of Ramu. A well-to-do doctor, young, handsome, dominant caste and class is his background, he genuinely loves his wife and wants her to be happy. In this process he is able to deal with a lot of stereotypes he had built in his mind. Example, when he comes to know that Kaveri is very excited to be a part of the investigation in her own way, he does not stop her. He encourages her to learn to swim and drive his car, and sees no reason to hang his ego flimsily on Kaveri’s clothes! His response to Swamy, a neighbour, is classic: “Try being nice to your wife for a change. See what a difference it makes to your life!” Very well said Harini – but do they make many men like Ramu, or are they all in books of feminist writers who need to create them for their own pleasure?!

Harini overall has presented to us a new way of life in today’s complex and controversial Bangalore. She has said that our city of the 1920s and the people were willing to learn for change and so should we. She has brought references to Bangalore being a large city but caste, job and family status came in the way of everything – yet her characters were able to move from their spaces of bias to a space of fraternity. I can’t help but say that Harini has fallen in love with Kaveri. She has made her own dream woman of those days come to life through Kaveri’s character. Just the way she describes her, the way she made her good at math, sleuthing, planning, empathetic, being able to give back, manipulative when required – too good!

While Harini has made Kaveri the epitome of who a woman is, she has done the exact opposite to Daphne and brought a tint of British insensitivities to her. I wonder why she picked Daphne and not her husband to showcase this trait, and this is something I would love to hear from the author herself.

Overall, a masterpiece, definitely a series to watch out for “A Kaveri and Ramu Mystery” is a full and full Kaveri mystery with a supportive Ramu. A club that will only take a full, sensitive human into its membership – this being elite in today’s India!

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