The thing with a detective novel is that when you dive into one, you do so with a sense of purpose––to uncover the truth behind a mystery. In Harini Nagendra’s The Bangalore Detectives Club that does not happen until you’re done reading almost one third of the book. In fact, had it not been for the title, it would’ve been quite impossible to deduce what the book is about until quite late. Even though the reader is presented with a mystery––a cold-blooded murder in a club, followed by two more deaths–– the first element of surprise does not arrive until the 11th chapter.
One might argue that it is the buildup to the mystery, but the largely banal writing fails to create any excitement that is critical to making a detective novel unputdownable. What it however does manage to do is paint a picture, a beautiful one at that, of the pre-independent India of the 1920s, capturing the languorous way of life, in a country that is slowly awakening to a sense—both political and social––of its own identity, separate from the one that its captors have insiduously been imposing for over a century.
At the centre of the story is our primary sleuth Kaveri, a new bride of 19, who despite the diktats of the society, wants to study further, get a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and one day hopes to become a teacher. It was frowned upon when women from “good families” stepped out of their homes without their husbands or fathers, let alone work, but Kaveri wanted to do it all—study, work, drive and everything else.
Although she has by her side a very supportive doctor husband in Ramu, and it helps that his belief system dismisses all biases––gender, caste and religion––the constant derision of the wishes, desires and rights of almost all women in the novel is a sad reminder of how little we have progressed over the last century, in our treatment of women. “Assessing a woman’s character seemed to be the favourite pastime of elders... The burden of the respectability of the home was placed on one’s womenfolk.”
Despite the lackadaisical pace of the mystery, the novel does deserve a read, if nothing else, for its portrayal of the companionship between Ramu and Kaveri. The bond that effortlessly transitions from a friendship to romance in about 300 pages, is brought to life in little, everyday acts of kindness that the two show towards each other––a cup of coffee that Ramu surprises his wife with, his forthrightness to teach Kaveri how to drive, their stolen glances and more. Their constant and consistent upliftment of each other is enviable. Tender, thoughtful and nuanced, their exchanges are spectacularly evocative, making one feel that perhaps Nagendra debuted with the wrong literary genre.