Thursday, 3 December 2015

Life, Larceny And Love Commandos: Vish Puri's Next Case

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 03 December 2015


My pursuit of the latest adventures of a certain fictional Punjabi private eye took a back seat to work, despite having bought the book almost two years ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

And I wasn't disappointed.

Since encountering, enjoying and evaluating the first two Vish Puri novels by Tarquin Hall in 2011, I've been chomping at the bit for more. The fun continues with the fourth instalment, The Case of the Love Commandos.

(Oh look, recipes at the back, “from Vish Puri's family kitchen.” Mmm, Lucknow Mutton Biryani...)

In a blog post, Hall describes a meeting with “a middle-aged, part time journalist” and the head of the actual Love Commandos, a bunch of people in India who help star-crossed couples in love elope and start new lives. The encounter inspired the main plot for Love Commandos.

“It would be set, I decided, in rural India and the plot would centre around a couple of absconding lovers: she from a high caste family, he from an untouchable, or Dalit, one,” Hall blogged. “How, though, was I going to get Vish Puri involved?”

The solution: A phone call from Facecream, the Nepali femme fatale who's one of Puri's undercover operatives. The portly private investigator is surprised to learn his mysterious employee moonlights for the Love Commandos — specifically, as a getaway motorcycle rider — during her spare time.

In this case, Facecream helps Tulsi, a girl from a Thakur family, escape her father's watch and run off with her beau, a Dalit boy named Ram. But when they arrive at the place where the lovebirds' marriage ceremony is to take place, the boy is missing.

Her call comes at a bad time for Puri. An apparently perfect burglary has him so stumped, he ignores his masala chai and favourite coconut biscuits.

Then, when he excuses himself from a family pilgrimage to a famous shrine to attend to Facecream's case, he gets soaked by rain and is pickpocketed. The latter incident fixes Puri's mother on the trail of a suspect whom she believes is about to rob said shrine. Will she succeed in nabbing him?

Puri's case, meanwhile, is complicated further by the presence of arch-rival Hari Kumar, who was mentioned in the first novel. Amoral, suave and arguably better-looking than Hall's protagonist (good enough for the Indian edition of GQ, yaar), the former spy is also searching for Ram at an unknown client's behest.

And there's even a Dalit politician, who reminded me of a real-life female counterpart. Plus, some possible shenanigans involving a foreign genetics research company.

We also get to see more of Facecream. We are reminded that she once joined the Maoists in Nepal but became disillusioned with the movement and, after a bunch of other adventures, ended up working for Puri. At one point, she was even married.

So it's perhaps not surprising to see a feminist and maternal streak in the steely woman, during her undercover stint as a schoolteacher in a poor village under the thumb of another high-caste landowner. She even takes a village kid under her wing — a future operative for Puri's Most Private Investigators?

The lively tone that defined the first two books had begun to fade by the third, though the clever and charming storytelling retains that cartoonish feel of the series (so far) — and makes it easy for film adaptation.

(Though some might struggle to suspend disbelief, I am convinced that Facecream can forge credible-looking documents at an Internet cafĂ© and create an ID with “half a potato, her trusty switchblade, a red ink pad and a laminating machine.”)

The social commentary, though, is ramped up here, what with “millennia-old caste prejudices,” the tyranny of some higher-caste landowners, and even the exploitative practices of Western firms coming under the spotlight.

In the course of his investigations, Puri must also contend with how the rapidly changing times are challenging his stand on certain things, such as caste and the traditional family values. The ex-army man's pride in his kshatriya (warrior) caste appears threatened by what he learns about genetic research and DNA: “It seemed simply incredible that from a single drop of blood scientists could tell you more about yourself than you had ever known.”

Also, just like in the real and imperfect world, not every baddie in the case gets his just desserts. At least one unsavoury character escapes justice, leaving some loose ends untied — teasing a remotely possible resolution in the future. Well, one can dream...

Still, this novel still retains some of the bounces and bumps that made the previous three such a joy. Mummy-ji's antics are a delight as she endears herself further to the readers, to the point of stealing her son's thunder, and deservedly so. Such an awesome family can't possibly have just one hero.

And such a stupendous series can't possibly end here.



The Case of the Love Commandos

Tarquin Hall
Arrow Books (2013)
310 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-091-93742-3

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