How do you best challenge the fact that in India, finding a woman in a position of power at her workplace is almost always—your short-haired, handloom-wearing principal notwithstanding—the exception to the rule? How best to use the propelling power of one of India’s largest publishing houses to make your point about feminism in a country where children are regularly slaughtered for not having the right kind of body parts?
Building Twitter and tumblr accounts for your tough-as-nails, police superintendent protagonist that only display pictures of patent leather shoes and satiny dresses might not be the most effective way.
Drop Dead book cover (Purchase)
Drop Dead: A Niki Marwah Mystery is Swati Kaushal’s third book, including the bestselling A Girl Like Me that hit stands in 2008. Drop Dead was released on the tenth of October this year, and having read none of Swati’s books before, or indeed any book about an Indian lady cop, I went into this one with a lot of wide-eyed optimism. In no way, of course, did I expect Swati Kaushal to be a happy amalgam of Sylvia Plath and Agatha Christie. But the book looked promising enough to be something smarter than your average cookie-cutter chick-lit. Imagine how far and how fast my face fell when I read the book’s first line:
“Shimla Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah did not usually like to discuss her sex life.”
What follows is four pages of girlish banter where all S.P. Marwah does is discuss her sex life. Her extremely hare-brained friend insists that she focus more on dating, rather than, you know, solve murders and rapes and do her job in general. The opening pages of this book could have been lifted straight out of a Reese Witherspoon movie.
The book revolves around the murder of a C.E.O. of a publishing house while the entire company is on a very improbable corporate retreat in the fictional town of Sonargam, near Shimla. Everyone knows remote hill stations are prime murder-mystery real estate, coming in second only to sleepy coastal villages. So far, so clichéd.
Kaushal paints the usual cast of characters flat and two-dimensional, the suspects each well-endowed with pasts and risqué sex lives. Victim Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta, is a philandering, manipulative, misogynistic egomaniac who seems to walk about handing people reasons to kill him. His colleagues include people he has cheated, slept with, and even flung books at. These colleagues, too, are very insubstantial characters, each being either “dumb” or “giggly” or “efficient”.
Protagonist Niki Marwah doesn’t fare any better. In an attempt to make her stoic, Kaushal has wiped her clean of any emotion at all. Not once does the superintendent seem troubled, scared, or even relieved at the case being closed. The way to build depth in a character is by giving her flaws that humanise her, and a weakness for shoes doesn’t do the job well enough.
Though Drop Dead‘s story flounders, as most mysteries are wont to do when bogged down with too many clues handled unskillfully, Kaushal’s writing holds promise. While occassionally she lapses into purple prose, and once even uses the tragic phrase “fiery green”, on the whole her writing is fast-paced and smooth. It is obvious that she has researched the book and police work as much as possible—she even acknowledges a couple of police officers at the end of the novel. She just seems like an author who might have been far better and far happier writing a different book.[Hachette India; ISBN 9789350094495]