In an ideal world, there would be close to nothing disagreeable about the cosy mystery novel, especially one with an unlikely detective-protagonist who stumbles into situations that need solving. Good ones, whether from the children and young-adults shelf or otherwise, work because they tug at one of our most primal instincts—that of curiosity and perhaps even a slight voyeurism—and also open us up to worlds that make us reflect. They are at once an exploration of human failings, a celebration of acuity, even a critical look at friendship, family, community and love.
The Death Of Kirti Kadakia, by Meeti Shroff-Shah, is a good attempt at being all of this. Set in an affluent area of Mumbai called Temple Hill, a thinly veiled fictionalisation of Malabar Hill, the book revolves around a community of affluent Gujarati Jain business families, their homes and social lives. We see how they save face through festering financial woes, and the parallel yet intimately involved lives of their domestic staff.
The protagonist, Radhika Zaveri “of Zaveri Jewellers”, is a writer, and, in keeping with the stereotype about writers, she has issues from past tragedies that she suppresses, just to get on with life. As the book opens, she has just returned from the US, where her books have been successful, one even being adapted into a movie—but she has hit a block and is crippled by the anxiety of measuring up to her own professional successes. Radhi, as she is known in the book, has not yet come to terms with losing both parents in a car accident decades ago; she has family in Madhavi, her supportive sister, and Sanjana, her best friend from childhood, both of whom still live in Temple Hill.
As a divorcee who is friends with her ex-husband, and as someone still reeling from another serious relationship that did not work out, Radhi is, for most of the aunties in Temple Hill, by default a rebel with secrets and scandals—even to her sister’s mother-in-law. Despite such underlying tensions, almost everyone from Temple Hill has a stable inheritance, both financial and neighbourly, to fall back on—families have known each other for years, generations of children have gone to the same schools and colleges, they have all lived in the same few apartment complexes and have been frequenting the same “Gymkhana” club all their lives.
This desi familiarity and friendliness, bedecked with the propriety and trappings of affluence, is perhaps too predictable a setting for a mystery. But this is offset by the slightly self-aware meta-narrative: A character recalls how one of Radhi’s books is a satire set in a similarly affluent Gujarati neighbourhood, and told through the eyes of the domestic staff. It helps that all of Shroff-Shah’s characters, across classes, are written well and sketched in detail: Each is deeply flawed but their complexity makes you want to know more.
The titular character, Kirti Kadakia, is Sanjana’s father. With him, Shroff-Shah has one-upped Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in that Kadakia is dead even before the book begins, yet it is due to his actions and inactions, his alleged stubbornness, and the things he hopes to only tell himself, that families and friendships unravel, and the plot moves forward.
This comes through clearly in the way Shroff-Shah handles the scene of the prayer meeting. Rather than stay in the physical space of the meeting itself, she uses the purpose of the ceremony—to remember the dead—to offer paragraph-long vignettes on each character’s strong and lasting memories of the dead man. A tribute reel that turns each of them into suspects.
Through sparse sentences shorn of any poetic pretentiousness, Shroff-Shah is also able to conjure up place and atmospherics admirably. This stands out especially well in the scene where Radhi goes looking for Vinod bhai, the dead man’s financial broker, and one of the last people he had spoken to. The office is busy, with the humdrum of a handful of employees drinking chai, munching absently on snacks, making calls, all while observing the rise and fall of stock and share prices on the ticker-tape of news channels. This is made to fade out as the reader walks along with Radhi, into Vinod bhai’s room: a “spacious office” in a “cheap but durable white laminate”, where the man, unused to meeting and shaking hands with ladies, gets up from his chair “just a little bit, his large derriere rising slightly in a sort of courteous chair squat”. He slowly opens up to her, only in exchange for her business, of course—opening analogue ledgers to look into Kadakia’s financial history, licking his finger to turn the pages, taking a “noisy sip of his tea” as he looks at specific entries. These are all seemingly simple, almost banal minutiae, underrated in how they come alive when strung together.
It is this fine but matter-of-fact attention to detail, especially of characters, that is at the heart of a good mystery. But it is sometimes this very trait that fails the most popular ones. For example, despite being a two-decade-old favourite, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is slowed down considerably by the details of its protagonist’s idiosyncrasies, her opinions, and her life. Shroff-Shah successfully avoids this, by making Radhi self-aware and anxious enough to prefer not to think about her problems or her past, except in poignant pockets.
The only let-down in is the denouement itself—to the seasoned reader of whodunits, the final confirmation of the culprit isn’t too much of a twist. While the denouement is a commendable one, with the reasons and motivations etched out sincerely and sensitively, the reveal could have been less disjointed in the way it finally played out. However, the book’s layered characters have enough potential to ensure this isn’t the only “incident” to befall Temple Hill. Radhika Zaveri ought to be coming back for more.