By Ian G. Wilson
It may surprise Western readers to learn that Christmas is big business in Mumbai. Partially a product of the city’s heritage as a Portuguese colony, partially a result of the Euro-American style commercialization that has reached many corners of the world, you might almost think you were in New York instead of India’s most populous city. Gaudy Christmas trees, frenetic shopping, and even:
“The annual epidemic of Santas was another thing that bothered him. In his opinion they were not only irritating but also suffered from the crime of being inferior knock-offs. The vast majority that descended on the city each year—in malls, in restaurants, even in the local branch of his bank—looked more like costumed hashish addicts of the type he often saw sleeping rough under the many flyovers of Mumbai.”
Of course, India is a breathtakingly complex country with cultures and religions going back to the dawn of civilization. The modern city of Mumbai has seen the presence of virtually all faiths and felt the effects of colonization by not only the Portuguese, but the British as well. Though India has long been an independent republic, its relationship with the United Kingdom, though occasionally strained, can be seen not only in the subcontinent, but in Great Britain as well, where there are thousands of people of Indian descent.
Vaseem Khan is one of these individuals, and his pride in his heritage is evident in his writing, even while he is brutally honest about the strife and inequity present in today’s India. Khan works at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science, which makes him admirably suited to write mysteries. He has a flair for description, making Mumbai come alive with rich characterizations and fabulous and sometimes bizarre infusions of local color. His new mystery, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown shows the clash and melding of cultures and people which make up modern Mumbai.
Kahn’s detective, Ashwin Chopra, a retired police inspector, finds himself at loose ends after his retirement and starts not one, but two businesses: Poppy’s Restaurant (named after his wife) and The Baby Ganesh Detective Agency (named after his young elephant). His success at breaking up a human trafficking ring has led him to be much in demand as a private investigator, though he frequently finds himself following errant husbands and lost pets. But when the British Crown Jewels come to town for exhibition and the amazing Koh-i-Noor diamond is stolen in a spectacular heist, he is embroiled in a case he can really sink his teeth into. His friend Inspector Shekhar Garewal has been charged with the crime and is being held in Mumbai’s grim Arthur Road Jail:
“The prison had originally been built to house eight hundred inmates—it now served as home to almost three thousand . . . Barracks designed for fifty were routinely crowded with two hundred, so that inmates were forced to sleep on top of one another or in awkward positions like somnolent yogis. Sanitation was non-existent, hygiene a dirty word. Lice were rampant. Bedbugs crawled openly over the filthy blankets that served as beds. In the canteen, rats and cockroaches conducted parade ground manoeuvers with impunity.”
To save his former colleague, Chopra has to track down the real thieves, a process which takes him into the wealthiest regions of Mumbai. Ironically, to gain entrée, he has to pose as a member of the lower classes, a clown in a run-down circus which is providing the entertainment for a suspect’s birthday party. He is ably helped in this by his elephant, the aptly named Ganesha. Chopra’s attempts to infiltrate the house meet with a moment of high comedy when he finds himself trapped on a narrow window ledge:
“He surveyed the ground as it swam before his sweat-soaked eyes. The striped awning that extended from the rear wall of the bungalow was one storey beneath him. Could he jump into that and use it to break his fall?
No. The fabric was too flimsy. He would go crashing through it and clatter into the trestle tables groaning with food that lay directly below.
He looked around.
Where the awning ended, just a few feet from where Chopra was perched, was the giant cake. Ten feet of solid cake base, coated in white chocolate. It was all but hidden by a water fountain from where the circus show was going on.
He made a decision.”
One can imagine where things go from here, and the result is, dare I say, delicious.
But the theft of the Koh-i-Noor is not the only crime the Ganesh Agency has to solve. At the Catholic boys’ school where Poppy teaches, a bust of the founder has gone missing. It seems a minor matter, but the principal of the school, Augustus Lobo, takes it in deadly earnest, especially in light of a potential Papal visit to the institution. Here is one of the places where Khan’s deft characterization shows:
“The principal was approaching his ninetieth year but looked no older than a man in his late sixties. Lobo had once declared that he owed his enduring youth to the fact that he had, for the past fifty years, taken a daily dose of his ‘own water’, following in the footsteps of his hero, former Prime Minister of India Morarji Desai . . .
Lobo stopped pacing and swiveled to face his visitors with a glare that had turned many a future captain of Indian industry to jelly. Chopra heard Rangwalla shuffle behind him. Rangwalla’s schooling, he knew, had been rudimentary. He had no doubt the former sub-inspector was reliving the many beatings he had earned as a boy, beatings that were now personified in the minatory form of Augustus Lobo.”
Then there is the case of Chopra’s young ward, Irfan, who has disappeared with a cruel looking man claiming to be the boy’s father. It is not Chopra or his assistant who descends into the depths of Mumbai’s slums to find Irfan, though, but Ganesha. Whether one believes in the heightened senses and great intelligence of elephants or not, the search is a harrowing, believable, and touching tale of an animal finding a beloved human friend.
One of the many aspects of The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown that I enjoyed is that it has a peaceful solution. It is satisfying to me, as a reader, to see a modern mystery that doesn’t end in a shootout. Admittedly, Chopra is frustrated by the corrupt machine of Mumbai politics which doesn’t always serve justice, but I found the ending in keeping with the tone of the story, which is at turns funny, heartrending, grim, and optimistic.
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown is available now at GPL.