Saturday, 31 October 2009
Book Review: Paul Theroux's A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta
Paul Theroux is known primarily as a travel writer, though he has published many works of fiction. His latest book, ‘A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta’, is set in, well, Calcutta (Theroux does not even bother to explain why he prefers Calcutta to Kolkata) and though not a travelogue, benefits immensely from Theroux’s travel writing traits. Did Theroux make a trip to Kolkata just to get background material for this book or is it based on memories from an earlier one? I don’t know, but if it is the latter case, then Theroux has a fantastic memory.
The best thing about A Dead Hand is that one gets to see, hear, smell and touch Calcutta through Theroux. It is not always a pretty picture, but it is not particularly negative either. In any event, it is an honest, brutally honest, picture. Theroux makes his share of mistakes (a nanny is referred to by the South Indian ‘Amah’ rather than ‘Ayah’), and some of his ‘stories’, such as the one about a posh nanny who flaunts i-pods, drugs her young charge and makes money begging with the child at a traffic intersection when she is supposed to be walking the child in the park, don’t ring true to an Indian ear. I doubt if any Indian beggar, even one with a drugged child drooling at the lips, would make enough money from begging to buy an i-pod and drugs. Despite such minor hitches, Theroux’s Calcutta tales are splendidly narrated and mostly sound authentic. His reproduction of Indian English as spoken in Calcutta makes it sound lyrical and sweet and Theroux almost gets it right (I think). I mean, I am sure that there are at least a few Indians in Calcutta who speak the way Theroux has imagined them to speak.
The story is narrated by an American writer, Jerry Delfont, who is in Kolkata to give lectures arranged by the American consulate. Having finished his lectures, Delfont has writer’s block and is trying to kill time. He is easily persuaded by pretty, rich, charming, middle-aged and tantric American Merrill Unger to stay on in Calcutta and investigate a dead body which turned up in a cheap hotel where Merrill’s son’s friend Rajat was staying. Merrill is a colourful and exciting personality and the detection of the murderer is as much about understanding Merrill as it is about solving the crime. Theroux shows his readers the various faces of Merrill, each as fascinating as the next. He tells us about Merrill’s past in bits and pieces that provide various contrasting facets, which add up to create a complex, but still incomplete picture.
Finally, just to make sure his readers don’t assume Jerry Delfont is Theroux himself, Paul Theroux makes a cameo appearance and chats briefly with Delfont!
Who is responsible for the murder? Since Theroux devotes so much time and space on Merrill, one is forced to wonder if Merrill is responsible, though she had called on Theroux to investigate the crime. Or is it Rajat, Merrill’s son’s friend in whose hotel room the body initially turned up? Or is it Merrill’s son Chalmers? Theroux keeps his readers guessing till the end. Do read this wonderful book to find out if you want to know who did it.