Murder and music don’t seem to make for obvious bedfellows. But throw myth and memory—those wily tricksters—into the mix and they may set off an odd alchemy.
In her new “Lalli mystery”, surgeon-cum-writer Kalpana Swaminathan cooks up a strange brew, starting with an ingredient that doesn’t even exist as the story begins. At the heart of her tale is a forgotten melody, but one that is crucial to unravelling a murder committed in the present and another that has remained buried in the distant past. Linking these two killings, along with a third horrific tragedy, is an ancient Tamil myth—of Lord Murugan, the six-headed deity, who destroyed Surapadman, an evil monster, with his vel, or shining spear.
Devoted fans of Lalli don’t need any introduction to her. But for those who are not familiar with her genius, she is a formidable ex-police detective, our very own desi Miss Marple. A seemingly harmless-looking old lady in Kanjivaram at times, who can turn into a mean driver at others, she carries a razor-sharp edge and is incapable of suffering fools, usually male colleagues in the force. In her latest adventure, Raagam Taanam Pallavi, she punches one blustering specimen without any ado, an intensely satisfying moment for sensitive readers, whose teeth had been set on the edge by this man's sheer gall.
Now for the title: once again, those in the know of Carnatic classical music do not need any enlightening. For the rest, suffice it to mention that it refers to a traditional structure of performance that requires a keen expertise of innovation and understanding of musical theories. There is, in fact, a helpful glossary of musical terms at the end of this novel, which you may wish to look up, though you would be able to follow the arc of the plot without consulting it just as well.
Raagam Taanam Pallavi, as the title suggests, is deeply rooted in Tamil culture and identity. For the first time, after over half a dozen Lalli novels, Swaminathan reveals to us an aspect of her heroine that we don’t get to see too often. Lalli is fragile and infirm here, after a bout of delirious fever, withdrawn and supine in her apartment in Mumbai. She remembers snatches of the famous kritis (lyrics) by the legendary composer Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835) as she struggles to fit the pieces of a cryptic jigsaw puzzle together.
Into this scenario comes her neighbour Ramachandran, a connoisseur of music, with the story of one of his students, Senthil, who seems to suffer from fits of epilepsy induced by certain Dikshitar kritis. The plot thickens further when Sita, Lalli’s niece who lives with her and is the narrator of her adventures, remembers an incident of religious possession she had witnessed in Ambarnath in the past. And then there is Lalli’s own wispy memory of a woman’s enraged countenance she had witnessed at the temple in Kanya Kumari two decades ago. As the past collides with the present, repressed memories surface from the depths of Lalli's psyche, and the causes behind three deaths are gradually illuminated.
Swaminathan expertly braids layers of intrigue and secret together to keep us on tenterhooks till the end. As with all her Lalli books, the road to discovery is paved with richly textured prose, characters who shine for their eccentricities, gleam and gain definition with each turn of the page. Be it the corpulent police inspector Shukla or his meticulous but brainless sidekick Shaktivel, reality impinges on the trappings of fiction every so often, never letting us forget the city of Mumbai, the muse of all of Swaminathan’s books, or the clumsiness of the most earnest and well-meaning police investigations. Savio, Lalli’s burly protégé, and Dr Q, the forensic physician who is either arm-deep in cadavers or nose-deep in rare books, bring up the rear.
It’s a real pity that Lalli, and her creator, aren’t as celebrated as some of their foreign counterparts among Indian readers of crime fiction. For those who are new to this series, Raagam Taanam Pallavi would be an excellent place to start—not only for its flawless plot line but also its daring plunge into the depths of the human depravity.