“Swaminathan has her rich cast of characters, Mumbai’s bhoot banglas and shops with interesting names like Antim Bidi.”



Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli mysteries have been emerging in a slow welcome trickle over a decade.

Lalli, the elegant, grey haired retired police officer is always on demand by the Mumbai police spearheaded by Savio and Mr Q, in a crisis. She has a mean line in kanjeevarams and, with her niece Sita by her side, has a knack for getting to the heart of a murder.

Lalli is by no means squeamish where corpses are concerned – but then nor was Miss Marple.

Like Miss Marple, Lalli is single, though not confined to a quiet English village. Her beat is the bustle of Mumbai with its odd characters, criminals, twists and turns. The fact that she is in her sixties gives her the freedom to wander at will with none of the hangups that a younger woman might have. She also has the advantage of being a dead shot with martial arts skills thrown in, since she is a woman of her times.

However, there is no doubt that Lalli is feminine despite it all and through her influence Sita is also gravitating towards becoming a sleuth in her own right, apart from writing novels.

After her suite of novels, Swaminathan has embarked on a set of stories that require Lalli to solve her murders within the span of a single chapter – though the title story is divided into seven short acts. This collection brings together a series of interesting plots like a woman who is being stalked by the same face, or a well near a landfill where every so often people vanish. Swaminathan throws in a story of current relevance in The Sixth Pandava where murder takes place at a book burning session staged by Hindutvawadis, a scenario that seems set for a lynching but where all is not as it should be.

Swaminathan has her rich cast of characters, Mumbai’s bhoot banglas and shops with interesting names like Antim Bidi. They form an exotic melange in the stories, with different variations on the theme for each. There are several poisonings perhaps because the tight framework of a short story does not allow for an elaborate means of death and also because many of the murderers are women. However, Swaminathan eschews the obvious forms of murder no one is shot, stabbed,or bludgeoned. The most gruesome is Suicide Point which seems to link to Swaminathan’s last novel Greenlight in its serial killing, even though the orientation isn’t sexual.

The title story is the most complex in its tale of murder centring on what seems to be one of Australian chef Zumbo’s desserts. It testifies to the fact that India is now ensconced in haute cuisine territory – though there was a hint in Swaminathan’s Page Three Murders – and the mix of Art Deco, Maharajahs and cuisine with a few Maheswari saris thrown in makes for a heady concoction. However, one is forced to speculate whether the stories would have been better as novels in themselves because some of them seem to ask for slightly more time – not that that subtracts from the elegance of Swaminathan’s prose and plotting.


Reviewed by:

Anjana Basu

Added 23rd May 2018

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Anjana Basu