Indian crime fiction in English is fast coming of age. It started with Jamyang Norbu’s Sherlock Homes (The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes) take off, unless I am much mistaken, went on to include Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli mysteries, and Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo and now we have Anita Nair’s Inspector Gowda.
Borei Gowda, “soft in the middle, blurred at the edges”, is a familiar figure to detection fiction readers. We’ve found him in Ian Rankin’s Rebus. Like all detectives blessed with superior detection skills, he is a misfit and, again like Rebus, at loggerheads with his superiors simply because he does not kowtow to the system — in this case, the Bangalore police force. Indian cities all have their seamy underbelly of crime and you can throw in roaring Bullet motorbikes, eunuchs and corrupt politicians with innumerable levels of red tape to cut through.
Nair launches Gowda’s story with a transgender edge, a theme that’s very ‘in’ and an interesting weapon that results in the slightly Bangalorean title. The odd thing is that people keep calling it a thriller when it’s actually a murder mystery.
Murder mysteries have their own pace and along the way they delve into the detective’s personal problems with life. Gowda, known as “Borei” to his school friends and ex-girlfriend, is a man living on his own because his wife has shifted city ostensibly to keep an eye on their college-going son while pursuing her own medical career as well.
Borei is obsessed by a niggling sense of guilt because he’s bored with his marriage and is relieved to be on his own munching on chilli chicken and letting his belly down. Though he’s conservative enough to think he should be loyal to his wife even in the face of romantic conflict. Like all complex fictional police officers, he has a past which has set his future in doubt.
Part of the story is about identity, how we are never who we think we are and how we are never sure what we can be. Nair’s writing is at its best when she is describing a transgender’s attempts to be feminine, inspired by Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings with dangling pearl earrings and poetic whiffs of attar. Her woman protagonist, Gowda’s old love Urmila, sadly seems to fall flat by comparison and her British title comes across as unnecessary.
The murder is well plotted with the requisite smoke and mirrors to keep the reader guessing. Nair apparently did a lot of research while she was writing the book, to get the police station procedure right. And of course the pace steps up at the end so that you’re left wondering whether Gowda will get there in time.
As an introduction to a new detective series and to an established writer’s foray into a new genre, Cut Like Wound sets a gripping pace. One can foresee complications as Inspector Gowda’s life develops along with the crimes he is called in to solve, with or without the active cooperation of his superiors in the police force.
Anjana Basu is the author of 'Rhythms of Darkness'