CS Lakshmi or Ambai – as the publishing world knows her – is a celebrated feminist Tamil writer, born in 1944. Some of her works have already been translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom: A Purple Sea (1992) and In A Forest, A Deer (2006). The writer and her translator together won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award (Indian language fiction translation) for In a Forest, A Deer in 2006. Ambai also received Iyal Virudhu – the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to Tamil literature, in 2008, from the Tamil Literary Garden (Canada).
At the age of 72 she has come up with something new – crime fiction with a mature woman protagonist, Sudha Gupta, as a private detective working in Mumbai informally with her inspector friend, Govind Shelke. In the background appear Sudha’s scientist husband, Narendra Gupta; her daughter Aruna; her mentor, Vidyasagar Rawte from whom she learnt the tricks of the trade; and a more conspicuous assistant, Stella. A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge is a collection of three longish short stories about Sudha’s cases, published recently by Juggernaut Books.
In an interview with Mid-day Ambai said, ‘I have been thinking of writing mystery stories for a while; not crime thrillers exactly but more of the mysterious ways in which human beings act under emotional pressure or when forced by circumstances. The mystery stories I wanted to write were not ones where a criminal is finally identified but ones about human vulnerability, obsessions and love which take mysterious turns in life.’
This is probably the USP of Amabai’s crime fiction. The stories are not whodunits with sensational revelations, twists and turns. The three stories present a realistic social milieu that puts the crimes into perspective and establishes incontrovertible causal relationships. Another detective series that accomplished this task so well in terms of the human element was Derrick – a German television crime series (1974-1998) starring Horst Tappert as Detective Chief Inspector Stephan Derrick, and Fritz Wepper as Inspector Harry Klein, broadcast by Doordarshan somewhere in the 1980s.
In ‘As the Day Darkens’ Sudha Gupta, enjoying her cup of cinnamon tea, is interrupted by a call from Govind Shelke, who asks for her help regarding a young woman’s case. On a family vacation at Madh Island, Archana’s three young daughters disappeared from the beach and the shock led to the hospitalization of her husband. Sudha steps in as a sympathetic friend and puts her brain to work. The non-linear narrative also reveals how she became a detective accidentally, following her closest friend’s movements once.
In ‘The Paperboat Maker’, Chellemmal, Sudha’s cook and Aruna’s nanny, approaches her to investigate a prospective bridegroom for her daughter, Mallika. Sudha’s sense of humour is apparent in her exchange with the woman as she enquires why she feels the boy is not suitable:
‘… I believe he writes poetry.’ [Chellammmal]
‘You’re saying that as if he has some contagious disease.’
‘And he writes in Tamil.’
‘That is indeed a fatal disease!’
In the title story, ‘A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge’, Sudha runs into an aging woman, Sandhyabai, on platform number 4 at the Andheri station. Seeing her all by herself at the same place even in the evening Sudha worries about the stranger and manages to persuade her to tell her her story. Once she has all the information she requires, she sets out to right the wrongs she has perceived.
Speaking from a feminist standpoint, Amabi made her intentions clear in her interview. ‘I thought it may be interesting to create the character of a woman private detective who does routine detective work but occasionally works with an inspector friend. I felt that the city seen from her point of view would present a different perspective of life and living in Mumbai.’
These traits are apparent in the stories, which have pretty simple plots, somewhat like Madhulika Liddle’s Muzaffar Jung series, but like Jung they keep the reader entertained and engaged. The book, however, seems to fall victim to some of the challenges of translation. In regional Indian language texts, quite often long blocks of dialogue replace paragraphs filled with descriptions and settings. While they work well enough in the original version, the absence is much more evident in the English translation. This factor makes these stories come across as lacking at times – like unfinished paintings – especially since the reader is used to well fleshed out narratives.
But on the whole the lover of cinnamon tea and Bollywood music, Sudha Gupta, is an interesting character and certainly worth making an acquaintance with.
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal, the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle, and the author of Turtle Dove: A Collection of Bizarre Tales