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A closetful of mystery
A Closetful of Skeletons
Author : Tanushree Podder
Publisher : Harper Black, Rs 250
This balanced murder mystery keeps the rational wheels in the reader’s head churning without overly violent or graphic description, says AMRITA VARMA
A good murder mystery, on a cold winter night, with a cup of warm coffee and your mind buzzing with visions and images of stories untold, is pure bliss, if one has experienced it. This particular one does justice to that experience without being aggressively graphic and violent in its expression. The novel itself travels from the fast — paced cinematic visions of the lives of the who’s who of Bollywood with all its masala, moving to life in a cottage of an idyllic village in the Himalayas with its laid back peaceful surroundings. The protagonist, Ramola, who is an immensely successful actress, carries the story through her relative struggle in the film industry from her liaisons with men and brushes with the casting couch, to her shift to limelight and then to a life of relative recluse which she has enjoyed immensely in the recent past.
One gets a fantastic experience of the beauty and serenity of life in the hills and its slow pace where leisurely pursuits are the order of the day. Coming back to Mumbai, the characters are presented in the first few chapters one after another. The psychological make up, frustrations, tensions, emotional associations and their expectations with the protagonist can be sensed which are further re instated through the novel. Meanwhile, in the hamlet of Ramsar, Ramola has been writing an autobiography with the help of a young journalist who resides with her. They plan a launch of sorts by inviting each of the characters that have been an integral part of her story to her 40th birthday party in the hills. To add to it is an audience of the local judge, retired army officer, doctor, policeman/ detective and their families who are the local neighbours and the servants in all their ji hazoori, hard work, alcoholic abandon and careless gossip. The stage is set for murder. Let the games begin.
What is interesting is the relative ease with which Podder flows from one character to another and binds the mystery where not only can one experience what each entity is going through internally, but also its external manifestations in their behavior while keeping the secret of the possible murderer/s under strict lock and key. One seems to go through a parallel detective game along with the colonel and the detective/ policeman who play the part of the Sherlock — Watson duo in its classic style with aplomb. As it happens in the hills, one finds beautiful depictions of everyday life, the walks through the hills, those lovely, homely cottages with flowering creepers on walls and the surrounding cottages with their inhabitants sitting in their gardens basking in the sun and the views and idle talk which exists in places where there is less to do and more time to kill. The entire novel is peppered with such visuals and it is commendable how Podder has built the story gradually weaving it with these detailed panoramic depictions so much so that the reader actually feels transported there and one can feel the crisp mountain air and the chirping of the birds!
While the novel runs in a racy manner like a Doyle novel with intrigue around every bend, the familiar idyllic countryside plays well with the contradictions between time and space. There is too much excitement for a hill town, which in a humourous way, gives something to the local people living there to do and think about while all the city dwellers who have thronged the hills for their various vested reasons enjoy the bounties of nature and rest, ironically around the stage where the murder is set! In doing so, the characters though very realistic, gain strains of a comic identity through their respective circumstances and actions. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the narrative here is robust yet gently brought out and has certain lightness to it. The final darkness of a brutal murder is not felt in a block of black but in its greys and gets buried under the subtler, grander circumstances that come into play where somewhere one finds the circumstances of the characters lives justifying the means and the final actions. In the end it seems like a play of life and circumstances which force and bring about the final tragedy with the people as pawns of a grander plan by destiny itself.
There is a sense to all the drama and chaos as the successive meetings and partings happen within the visual narrative of the novel that one is constantly catching up to. One can feel the inner drama and thoughts of the characters in a startlingly clear manner and this lends itself to a premonition that something is not right even though all seems to be on the verge of coming back together with one happy band of friends coming together and making merry till sundown. As the novel progresses towards its final act the progression of time and events fastens, a classic tool, which Podder uses with dexterity and one waits with baited breath though one is not totally aware of when will the deed happen and who exactly would have done it.
Podder just about manages to get the reader engrossed in peeling the layers of the characters and looking back in memory constantly, while mapping the change of events as they run through the novel, as active participants rather than a passive disassociated observer, which is a feat in itself to be applauded. Tanushree’s style of writing is to be credited for her understanding of the land, its people, cultural subtleties and the many humourous and interesting idiosyncrasies it brings with it that she exploits to the fullest. Her writing is gentle and fluid, and reveals events by changing pace when required yet is not obscure or verbose.
If one wants to really experience a classic murder mystery which is not so much a gory splash on the wall as it is the warp and weave of lives of people in all their vagaries and dynamism and the fascinating circumstances that delivers the final plot ending in a masterstroke with great flourish, you don’t want to miss picking up this one!
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