Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On Kalpana Swaminathan's The Monochrome Madonna

Three female presences, not counting the gold-coloured Madonna of the title, light up Kalpana Swaminathan’s new crime novel The Monochrome Madonna. These are the aging detective Lalli, a retired policewoman familiar to Swaminathan’s readers from two previous novels; Lalli’s niece Sita, a woman of literary inclinations with a deliciously tart tongue and an acquired interest in crime; and finally Swaminathan herself (who last week won the Vodafone Crossword Fiction Award 2009 for her book of stories Venus Crossing), a writer with a turn of phrase as stylish as that of anyone else on the contemporary scene. The universe of Indian genre fiction in English expands by the day (often to a chorus of voices inclined to exaggerate the charm of what is on offer). But there are, in truth, few writers in this group as gifted as Swaminathan, whether the criterion of judgement is quality of prose, facility with dialogue and plot, or understanding of the curves and quirks of human nature.

The opening chapter of The Monochrome Madonna, only three pages long, might serve as a case study in how to get a reader onboard a story. There is the dramatic opening line (“I’ve always known I’d be stuck with a corpse  some day, probably in the first week of October”), which introduces us to Sita, from whose point of view the story is told.

Then the subject of corpse-ridden Octobers is illuminated with brief, intriguing descriptions of the trouble that has flared up in the lives of Sita, Lalli and their cohort Savio three Octobers running, as if the reader is already familiar with these cases. In this way, an air of intimacy between narrator and reader is cunningly established, and a kind of storytelling energy generated. There is also a murmur of resistance: we find Sita actually wants to sit down and write in peace, but in Lalli’s absence she has to follow the new case. We enjoy her grumbles, because it makes for a better and funnier story than if she had been ready and waiting. And by the time the chapter ends, we are on site with “the annual corpse”, and now the story must move both forward and, if is to be resolved satisfactorily, backward too. Who did it?

The various personalities and elements attached to the crime include the striking Sitara Shah, an old classmate of Sita’s with the air of a diva; Sitara’s husband Vinay, who adores his wife so much he has photoshopped Raphael’s famous painting of the Madonna and replaced Mary’s face with Sitara’s; a mysterious man discovered lying dead in Sitara’s drawing-room; and various little curiosities, from an empty teacup to a set of fake golden toenails. Lalli only appears on page 50, by which time Sita has done much of the groundwork. We see not Lalli’s serene confidence, but Sita’s doubt-filled diligence (even as she worries away at what is going to happen to her book on the sewers of Bombay, an interest sparked by an earlier case). “Murder felt safer when Lalli and Savio were around,” confides Sita. “Taking on murder meant total responsibility. I was edgy, knowing that I wasn’t good enough.”

Thus, while the unravelling of the crime (or the book’s plot) is left to Lalli; the observation of this from without (or the book’s larger story) is entrusted to Sita, and is this is division of narrative duties that makes for the satisfactions of Swaminathan’s book. Indeed, the story is most interesting when it stays close to Sita’s point of view – a sophisticated, charming voice, moving easily from Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes to the latest trends in nailpolish ("'I'm good. I'm good. No, honestly, I'm good,' she said, doggedly putting that phrase through all three inflections mandatory to American sitcoms circa 2005"). I thought it fell away somewhat when it got too close to other characters, such as the testimonies of Sitara, Vinay and Savio.

Swaminathan knows that even murder mysteries must have their moments of digression. At one point we are treated to a sudden page-long meditation upon roses, followed by another passage on meteors, and realise this is a very independent-minded detective story. Here is Sitara, whose moments of study, reflection, and creation are always being swept away by the troubles of being a character in a murder mystery, shown sitting down and beginning to enter that state of comfort and relaxation that all writers know and look forward to:
Nothing restores me like a blank sheet of paper.... It's Prozac and caffeine, prayer and heresy, buffer and catapult all in one. With a good pencil, the blank page can reduce my unruly demons to chains and loops of black markings, words that march in regular array like ants–deceptively industrious, but each twitchy with a secret agenda. Words are nanochips: a zillion gigabytes of memory can fit in a two-syllabled word. Think of what you can pack into an A4 sheet of Bond!
The plotline of The Monochrome Madonna is perhaps too elaborate, and sometimes it is hard to keep track of all the possibilities and permutations thrown into the mix. But there are many lovely moments in the book, and the writing has a leanness, wit, and easy grace that are in marked contrast to the earnest and windy phrasemaking and imperfect control of register of so much Indian fiction in English. Lalli, Savio and Sita love not just sleuthery but also eating, drinking, and talking, and there is a rich pleasure here not just in the business of death but in the quotidian satisfactions of life. Vile Parle, the unfashionable Mumbai suburb where Lalli resides, should name one of its streets after Swaminathan’s charming detective.

An interview with Swaminathan is here.

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