First read: Shovon Chowdhury’s new novel, and he’s as funny as ever

After the acclaimed ‘The Competent Authority’, an excerpt from ‘Murder with Bengali Characteristics’.

On the face of it, it was an open-and-shut case. It had thug written all over it, right down to the silver coin next to the pillow. Inspector Li was skeptical about the thug menace. The only shadow creatures he knew worked for the Ministry of Internal Security. Besides, he preferred facts to assumptions. Facts were solid. Assumptions had a way of changing. For example, he had assumed that his wife would stay with him, but the fact was she was shacking up with a businessman in Beijing who had a life-size replica of the White House in his garden. She had become the businessman’s top squeeze, and was bound to displace his wife in due course. Gao Yu and he used to be the Romeo and Juliet of the Beijing police, the tough cop and the hooker with the heart of gold. Li had always known she might leave him, but did it have to be for someone with leopard-print underwear and a diamond-studded cell phone? It was why he had asked for a Calcutta posting, after twenty years in Beijing. He couldn’t stand all the sympathy.

The victim was a senior clerk in the fisheries department, and a lifelong party member.

He was trotted out of the closet during elections, and trotted back in afterwards. He was one of the Men in Dhotis. The party needed a thin layer of clean white dhotis, a garment representative of old-school communists, for all the goons to hide behind. It also represented a rejection of Western influences, such as trousers. Several neighbours had expressed their regrets, and they seemed to be sincere. The dead man used to spend his evenings teaching local children for free. He would give a couple of biscuits, which was all he could afford, to the poor ones.

Inspector Li picked up the dead man’s wallet. It was threadbare and patchy, like a dog with skin disease. It was also evidence. He took out the few tattered notes inside. He would give them to one of the neighbours for the funeral, and add a little bit more, for luck. The rest of its contents, he would study at leisure. He tucked in a visiting card, which seemed to be in Japanese. He felt a brief spasm of revulsion. He had been trained to hate the Japanese. The political climate had changed recently, so he was training himself to stop. China ruled Asia now. They were all one big happy family.

The Japanese were the sons, the Koreans were the brothers, and the Bengalis were the idiot cousins.

They hadn’t had time to figure out where people from places like Nagaland and Mizoram fit. They were too busy chasing them around the jungle. They were remarkably difficult to catch, and unexpectedly warlike. Casualties were heavy, and rising. The whole thing was far less fraternal than had originally been envisaged. Inspector Li was fond of travel, but that was one area he didn’t want to see in a hurry. In hindsight, joining North Tibet and South Tibet hadn't been such a good idea either, creating one vast province where everyone hated them. Between the Indians and them, there were more soldiers in the Indian subcontinent than anywhere else on the planet. The Assam Occupation Force alone was bigger than the entire US Army. Life was no picnic. For most Chinese officers in the New Territories, Calcutta was like a rest cure.

A single gunshot rang out, somewhere in the distance. A CPM goon squad, probably. Or a Maoist execution. Or the People’s Armed Police, although they tended to be more liberal with ammunition. Or maybe it was barbarian-on-barbarian violence. It was none of his business. He had a crime of his own to investigate.

Inspector Li picked up the dead man’s mobile. It was surprisingly advanced for such a poor man—a limited edition Heavenly Body i26. The last call was to Bijli Bose. Could it really be him? The patriarch of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)? The grand old man of the party? He was reputed to be 121 years old. He had kept himself young by sucking the blood of the youth of Bengal, according to one version. Others thought it was because he drank nothing but the finest Scotch. Could this poor old man have been in touch with such an exalted personage? Perhaps they were old party comrades, just spending an evening chatting about their days of struggle. It seemed unlikely. From what he had heard, Bijli Bose was not sentimental.

This was the point where he was supposed to forget he had seen his name.

No one messed around with former politburo members, even if they were darkies. It was a matter of principle. And this one was special. This one was held in high esteem by the Motherland. He had helped prepare the way. Nothing good could come from pursuing this.

He took out his own phone, noted the number, and called.

‘Hello?’ said a dry, quavering voice, echoing faintly, like a voice from the crypt. The video took time to kick in. ‘Hello,’ said the voice again, and then Bijli Bose shimmered into view. He was the Living Mummy. There was no flesh on his face, just paper dry skin stretched tight across bone, thin wisps of hair across an egg-like head.

‘Who?’ he whispered.

Bijli Bose spoke very little, to conserve energy, except when he was having fun, or when money was involved.

Despite assurances from the Resurrection Engineers, he feared that his new lifespan was limited.

Inspector Li waved briefly. He refused to salute a mobile phone.

‘I have a party member of yours...’

‘Who is dead. Yes.’

‘News travels fast.’

A smile flitted across his thin slit mouth.

‘You were the last person alive to talk to him, sir.’

Bijli Bose remained still for a while. Had he fallen asleep? His eyes were still open. Inspector Li waited patiently.

‘Come. Tomorrow. Morning,’ said Bijli Bose.

He remained on screen, mouth slightly agape, until a servant stepped into the frame and disconnected.

Inspector Li put the phone down and had one last look at the victim. A woman, weeping silently, was trying to put his limbs in order. Someone else came in with flowers. They covered his body with a crumpled, fraying sheet.

Excerpted with permission from Murder with Bengali Characteristics, Shovon Chowdhury, Aleph Book Company.

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