Review: The Secret Gardener

More recently, I reviewed Kalpana Swaminathan’s  ’The Secret Gardener’ for the Asian Review of Books.   Its the very latest in her series featuring Lalli,  the lady detective with great spunk,  a whiplash tongue and amazing yet silent powers of deduction.

The Secret Gardener by Kalpana Swaminathan

reviewed by Anu Kumar

5 June 2013 — In The Secret Gardener, Kalpana Swaminathan’s fifth mystery featuring Lalli—touted as the first genuine woman detective in Indian English fiction—the clues behind a particular shade of nail color shed light on a horrific crime that unravels with the discovery of a bone, rather two, belonging to two different corpses, in a garden being redone and planted anew.  Painted nails are something of a leitmotif for Swaminathan: Lalli’s third outing—Monochrome Madonna—features fake toenails painted golden that appear in a photo-shopped Raphael painting made over by a businessman besotted with his wife.

It is details like this that can make or break a crime series. Swaminathan’s innocuous introduction of these fascinating insights make for a richly rewarding reading experience.  In The Secret Gardener, an entire sociological study arises from analysing a particular shade of nail colour, just as the discovery of one particular bone, the sphenoid, illuminates human evolutionary progress.

Locally-written English-language genre fiction is a relatively recent development in India, although there has been detective fiction in Indian regional languages as early as the late 19th century. The Tamil writer Arani Kuppuswami Mudaliar modelled his Anand Singh books on Sherlock Holmes and also translated The Hound of the Baskervilles into Tamil. Other writers include the Bengali writers Saradindu Bandyopadhyay,  Premendra Mitra, Niharranjan Gupta and of course Satyajit Ray; in Hindi and Urdu, the two prolific writers were Surender Mohan Pathak and Ibn-e-Safi. Most of these sought to provide entertainment and feature swashbuckling, obviously male, detectives who chase down clues even as they battled villains.

Lalli, of course, is hardly the first female detective. At 60, she is of similar vintage as Miss Marple and has her shrewd understanding of psychology but Lalli is less indoor-sy: she likes her early morning jog and thinks nothing of pulling out her niece Sita for the sudden jaunt that will help nail down the mystery once for all. She also isn’t quite like McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe with her lazy humour, for Lalli has a sharp tongue along with a gift for repartee. She is reminiscent of V. I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s street-fighting detective but while the two share an affinity for physical fitness and a sarcastic tongue, Lalli doesn’t ever get her hands bloodied. Her knowledge of evil and those who commit them make Lalli very much a Mumbai detective, a city to which she seems uniquely suited. Lalli served in its police force for some time and is—as the stories unfold—a consulting detective, aware of its charms just as she knows its seamy side and most of its unsavory characters, some of whom are her “informers”.

The “secret gardener” of this book is Dr. Qureshi or simply Dr. Q., a post-mortem specialist with the police with an affinity for gardens. He brings a bone to show Lalli, whom he knows to be a collector of curiosities. The garden that is the current object of Dr. Q.’s attention is one that is being weeded and planted over at 24 Patwardhan Cross. This also happens to be the address that a criminal called Sukesh lets slip as his dying declaration. But Lalli and Dr. Q. recognize the excavated bone instantly as the sphenoid, the bone located in the front middle of the skull, leading to revelations not just as the bone’s owner but also to its significance in the human evolutionary process.

It is the discovery of a second bone, a fingernail, brightly painted, evidently belonging to that of a young woman, that deepens the mystery. A shade of nail polish can have an entire history written into it, and the nail stylist Arifa is just as well equipped as a post-mortem specialist to reveal this.

This a quintessential Mumbai book in its assortment of characters and specific dialogue, but it also features a Mumbai one rarely sees any more. With its threatened gardens and cottages, the looming change in the city is evident in the manner Swaminathan describes the elegant glass-fronted building belonging to a rogue industrialist in Kurla, or the exorbitantly priced nail-stylist whose help Lalli seeks. This a theme  Swaminathan has touched on before in Ambrosia for Afters where again there is a Mumbai cottage with a garden, eyed by greedy developers.

With tart dialogue, witty exchanges, and wry one-liners and the occasional glimpse of typical Mumbaikar wisdom, The Secret Gardener is a fun as well as a quick read. It is not entirely an easy one, though, for one has to stop, rework all the strands that appear just as Sita, Lalli’s niece and narrator, has to as she writes it all down, before going on, and even then one gets lost, until more clues appear like the lost persons from the past who emerge in this book in a seemingly natural way. A story wearing multiple strands is a welcome feature of Swaminathan’s novels—unthreading them always pulls the reader in—but at times there may be just one too many. A thread may appear and then just vanish, a quirkiness typical of Swaminathan’s writing.

As always, there might be a clue to the next Lalli mystery in the book’s epilogue: the hitherto unknown singer Kashish performing in a concert turns out to be none other than one of Lalli’s associates, Kesar, who (we had thought) dies early on in this book.

Anu Kumar is a writer who lives in Singapore. Her most recent novel is It Takes a Murder(Hachette India, 2012).

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