Comedy Detective Tale Set In Bengaluru

The Case of the Secretive Sister: Nilanjan P. Choudhury

At last finished reading Nilanjan Choudhury’s ‘The Case of the Secretive Sister’. Actually I should have said, “At last I started reading Nilanjan Choudhury’s ‘The Case Of The Secretive Sister’, because once I started reading it, finishing it was a breeze. Which is to say, it is a page turner (Not that there are too many pages to turn. I could glide through the 160 pages in less time than it takes me to write a book review.)

A little disclaimer here. When it comes to a book, a film or a play by a friend, if I don’t like it I just don’t write about it. So the fact that I am writing about it means, goes without saying, I like it. Let me just put forth why and how.

First off, it is quite funny – and that’s a big thing. So much of films, plays and TV serials are being created day in day out with the express purpose of arousing laughter. The stand-up comedy has evolved into an art form by itself.  But so few books are meant to be funny. Looking at the whole catalogue of Indian writing  in English the ones that have made me laugh can be counted on the fingers of one hand ( Of course I am talking only of the ones I have read.) . There is ‘ English August ‘ by Upamanyu Chatterjee ( his other books which I have read only in excerpts seem to be equally funny.) , there was ‘ The Inscrutable Americans’ by Anurag Mathur which was half way funny, there is Zac Oyeah’s ‘ Mr Majestic’ ( I am counting Zac as an Indian author), there is Kiran Nagarakar’s ‘The Extras’ ( I haven’t read the prequel ’ Ravan and Eddy’)  and there is Chetan Bhagat’s ‘ Five Point Someone’. (I genuinely think the book is very funny. )case of

And now I come across The Secretive Sisters. Like Zac Oyeah’s Mr Majestic, this too is based in Bengaluru and is supposed to be some kind of a detective story.  Which is not true. Though the book’s protagonist Mr. Chatterjee runs something called ‘The Chatterjee Institute of Detection’ the case he is entrusted with involves no crime to be solved and hardly anything to be detected. All he is being paid to do is to get Pinky Chaddha admitted to an upmarket convent school in the city. I found it closer in spirit to Wodehouse who created his own idyllic world with quaint characters caught up in strange imbroglios.

A word here on what I generally find funny and what I don’t find unfunny. Puns and word play I place at the lowest rungs of humour. I mean they are handy in livening up a conversation at a party or showing off how smart you are in a gathering of students. But in a book or a film, I am not very impressed with their usage.   ( That’s why I think so lowly of Salman Rushdie. One of my favourites, Nabokov, uses them but very sparingly and mostly in a book like ‘Ada’ which is about a writer. ) Parodying other books or films or alluding to them very directly is also a very low firm of humour for me, best left behind in college. I am not particularly turned on by sexual humour and most of it leaves me cold unless it is melded with one other elements from my armoury of high humour.  ( Kiran Ngarkar does it well in ‘ The Extras’.) So the kind of humour I go for  has to be based on seemingly normal situations and characters from life made funny by looking at them from a slightly oblique angle. I like writers playing around with everyday speech and I like coinage of colorful expressions that I have not encountered before. I like the absurd. I like irony. I like imagination taking wings. And I like sequences choreographed with mad energy and a distinct comic rhythm. They work  in films ….from Chaplin to Kungfu Hustle, and they  work in books.

I am glad to report that the book relies more on the kind of humour that I like and think better of. Mr Chatterjee, his secretary Miss Jolly, Sister D’Souza and   Inspector Gowda are all normal characters really and if they are side-splittingly funny in the book, it is  because we are looking at them refracted through the author’s eyes, which are  like one of those mirrors which make normal faces look distorted and funny. I also like the fact that like in Chetan Bhagat’s books  the cultural references here are cotemporary and taken more from pop rather than high culture (from the famous dialogue of actor Raj Kumar to Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s daughter’s name, from Baba Ramdev’s Kapalbhati on Aastha channel to credit  card salesmen in malls ). I also like that in spite of being mostly sweet it does not eschew the acidic altogether and introduces the right degree of edginess in scenes like Inspector Gowda cursing the north Indians who have taken hold of his dear  Bengaluru.

There is of course the spirit of genial humanism that pervades the book with no one being seriously evil.  But the book goes one step further and reveals s genuine nobility in an ordinary character like Mr.  Chatterjee in his final confrontation scene with Sister D’Souza.

The other good thing about the book is that it is not a slapdash montage of comic gigs. It is a fairly well-constructed plot and the plot that by itself has plenty of  comic energy. And the one universal winning element I mentioned in my list of tricks to be founding   a humorist’s handbag, well-choreographed caper sequences, find plenty of play in the final pages of the book. From the moment Mr. Chatterjee hits Inspector Gowda on his knee with a chair to him getting into an auto without a shirt to his cat and mouse chase with both Miss Jolly and Inspector Gowda in his own office, it is all fairly fast-paced and madcap.

And finally what makes the book such a page-turner is the fact that it has very little flab. Nilanjan seems to have kept in mind the advice given to writers by a famous writer of pulp  fiction (Is it James Elroy?), ‘Remove every sentence that does not move the action.’  So characters are etched, famous landmarks of Bengaluru evoked and observations on contemporary life made without ever disrupting the narrative, which chugs along at a pleasantly comfortable trot to its happy ending.

And yes, like the books of Wodehouse, ‘The Secretive Sister’ too has no message to give. And what can be more relaxing in a book?

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