May-Jun 2015: Review - Secretive Sister

The Case Of The Secretive Sister
Nilanjan P Choudhury

Harper Collins

Review: C K Meena

New detective on the block

The Chatterjee Institute of Detection might at first glance remind you of Precious Ramotswe’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in the Alexander McCall-Smith series. Like that traditionally-built woman in Botswana who has a penchant for gossip, homespun philosophy and red bush tea, Nilanjan P. Choudhury’s creation Mr Chatterjee too is a solver of life’s minor mysteries. And just as Mma Ramotswe has Grace Makutsi to assist her, Mr Chatterjee has his secretary, Miss Jolly. But there the resemblance ends. In wild contrast to the sedate pace of life in Gabarone, The Case of the Secretive Sister (an Erle Stanley Gardner-esque title, if ever there was one) is located plum in the middle of chaotic, modern Bangalore.

Mr Chatterjee’s unlikely clients are a nouveau riche Punjabi couple whose daughter Pinky flunks the interview for admission into nursery at the super-elite Holy Angels School. The formidable principal, Sister Eunice D’Souza, is known to never re-consider a candidate she has turned down once. But does the Sister have an Achilles Heel, a weakness that the detective could exploit, to coerce her to reconsider? As Mr Chatterjee bumbles along, he finds himself caught in an insane whirligig that propels him from one disastrous situation to the next. It is a series of farcical events that simply cries out for a Paul Fernandes illustration to capture it – as he does with his usual flair on the cover.

Choudhury’s humour is the laugh-out-loud kind – the kind one saw in his debut novel Bali and the Ocean of Milk. Here, he cranks it up to high farce. The reader would do well to bury her political correctness six feet deep when meeting Mrs Pammy Chaddha, a behnji-type who is desperate to be part of “the hi-fi, status people”, or Miss Jolly Kutty the prim Malayali from Cochin who is beginning to have suspicions about the activities of her ‘bose’. Choudhury’s background in theatre gives him a good ear for dialogue and he is pitch-perfect when capturing the speech patterns of these two hilarious characters, and indeed of all the others, major and minor, including the ferocious Inspector Gowda and Mr Chatterjee’s teenage daughter Shanta.

There is a skilfully written chapter where the reader is fooled into believing she has found out the nun’s secret, only to have the rug pulled out expertly from under her feet. This is a book that can be read in one breathless sitting. Bangalore landmarks and localities are strewn across the pages. One can virtually trace the path of the hapless detective as he flees from the clutches of the tenacious Inspector. I have one bone to pick with the author: there is no bus that takes you straight from St Mark’s Road to Cunningham Road.

But hey, this is fiction, and shackles must not restrain BMTC buses, nor the writer’s imagination.

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