The biggest joke in Shovon Chowdhury’s Murder with Bengali Characteristics is that the only real thing being murdered is the reader’s interest.
Murder with Bengali Characteristics by Shovon Chowdhury. Click here to purchase.
Speculative fiction has its own loyal fan following, but as in most cases of speculative fiction bordering on dystopic worlds of the future, there is an unhealthy dose of borrowing from dystopian classics that leaves me feeling mostly disappointed with the limitations of imagination in works of spec-fic. This novel however is also remarkably different in that it spends a fair share of every page giving the attentive reader something to chuckle about. There is a fairly strong and sustained critique of both greedy corporations and uninspiring politicians and the ways in which the text lampoons them is not only hilarious but at times breathtaking. My personal favourite is when Inspector Li judges his semi-sentient car to be unable to distinguish between a cow and a human-being — this speaks more of contemporary Indian politicians and their law-enforcing cronies than the tentacle manipulating car — or the well-placed lampoon of Macaulay’s 1861 penal code followed across India and large swathes of South and Southeast Asia.
Yet, jokes aside, there is something to be said about this novel’s failure to work as a murder mystery. The book neither has characters who invoke compassion nor a plot that impels its audience to get to the bottom of things. At times like these, I find myself always extraordinarily piqued to uncover whether the novel has a meta agenda to destabilise the expectations and conventions of the genre. Some writers whom I admire very much, García Márquez being the chief of them, do this in witty and fascinating ways, but this novel only propels the reader to the end so that one can put the book down and say good riddance (for fear of leaving an uncompleted book).
The problem, I fear, is that though this text is very funny, when you have a sarcastic quip or a witty lampoon on every other page followed by a mediocre to lame attempt on the remaining pages, the plot and character all go out the window. To be brutally honest (as I fear I have been so far), this novel makes for an excellent reading of how not to write a novel that satirises contemporary politics. It contains possibly all the funniest things one can say about politics, the government, and state-sponsored brutality, but to treat everything as a joke even at the cost of reducing and trivialising real life suffering is to desensitise the reader to the very real oppressions in India. This is a position of great apathy, something that is tending to be the norm and belies the difficulties of both having and protecting middle-class privilege; this, perhaps, is the greatest take-away from Murder with Bengali Characteristics.