The trouble with reading thrillers is they threaten to take over your life, if only temporarily. A few pages in, nothing seems more urgent than racing to the finish line. Family and work deadlines become a blur. And by the end of it one feels like a bit of a mess: sleep deprived, eyes hurting, and certainly a wee bit annoyed to have to race to catch up with the real world.

Journalist and author Deepanjana Pal’s foray into crime fiction, thankfully, set me back by just a day. Racy, delicately suspenseful and urgent, Hush A Bye Baby is unusual police procedural fiction set in Mumbai, going beyond the archetype of a modern-day suspense novel. It’s certainly a notch above most contemporary desi thrillers, polished and ringing in an assured voice. Pal’s efficient mystery taps into the horror of foeticide, adds a sharp vigilante angle to it, lit by piercing feminist rage.

Doctor or killer?

The book opens with a desperate call to the Mumbai Police Helpline when it appears a crime is about to be committed. Cut to a late night radio show where guest Dr Nandita Rai, a highly-regarded gynaecologist, is answering a question by a male listener who complains his girlfriend is demanding oral sex “because she is watching pornography” and he is put off by the idea of going down on her because he doesn’t find that part of the female body attractive. How should he delicately communicate this to his girlfriend? Dr Rai’s on-air response, in blazing feminist glory, is so deliciously blunt and applause-worthy that you can’t help but chuckle.

And so it appears most odd and shocking that the very same Dr Nandita Rai stands accused of conducting sex selective abortions at her Hope Fertility Clinic. She makes an unusual and an unlikely killer: a sophisticated, wealthy gynaecologist to the stars and socialites of Mumbai, married to a real estate magnate with plenty of “connections” in high places. Why would a highly revered medical professional, celebrated for her views on women’s rights and other causes go on a killing spree of this sort?
But anonymous calls to the police helpline have been pouring in, accusing her of coercing patients to abort female foetuses. So far, however, there is only one solid, identifiable lead who is ready to testify. Dr Rai is taken in for questioning, away from prying media eyes, and put up in a posh guesthouse as the investigation gets underway at Crimes Against Women (CAW) special unit.

Enter, the police

Hush A Bye Baby – the novel is creepily named after the lullaby Dr Rai supposedly sang while conducting the abortions – flits between the narratives of the three main police officers on the job. There’s the vada-pao-loving Inspector Manohar Hadpude, under pressure from Commissioner of Police to close the high-profile case and pin the crime on someone else. Then there’s Sub Inspector Lad, efficiently capable, who seems like he has an agenda of his own. The most rivetting of the lot is Sub Inspector Reshma Gabuji, the daughter of a wealthy, influential business family who is still finding her feet in the unit, thinks of herself as a flimsy interrogator but is “good with computers”.
These narratives are interspersed with newspaper articles, thought pieces and gossip columns covering the sensational case that add to the novel’s page-turning quality. Sample this:

“Topic: Thinking about the fragile male

We spend a lot of time talking about what is natural and unnatural here. So I was struck by something – perhaps all the patriarchal male posturing comes from a deep-seated, reptilian knowledge that men are weaker. Because they are. I don’t mean psychologically, but physically and naturally. Here’s something that doesn’t get talked about much: biologically speaking, the female has all the advantages. It’s only when society comes into play that women and girls become weaker. Let me explain…”

We’re also treated to the case unfolding through the eyes of the young lawyer dispatched to defend the posh doctor – Shravan Mehta, the “freshest face of Bansal and Irani”. Why did Dr Rai ask an inexperienced newbie to represent her? Readers would be thrown by Dr Rai’s opening chat with Mehta, even as she refuses to say much to the police. Did Dr Rai – or Dr Death as she is labelled – want her crimes to come to light so she could tell the world why they were necessary? What led her to commit these crimes if indeed she is a murderous gynaecologist? Or did someone brainwash her into turning killer? There is also a slim chance she is entirely innocent – is it her assistant framing her? And who’s the shady “life coach” Dr Rai’s been seeing?

The truth, the whole truth, and…?

Despite the disturbing turn of events, Dr Rai, herself, appears unfrazzled and opaque. If anyone can match her wits, it’s Sub Inspector Gabuji, who may seem out of place in the police headquarters with her clipped South Mumbai accent but she is the only one really interested in peeling the layers and entering the mind of the prime accused, using her cyber skills to startling effect as she discovers Dr Rai’s intricate online avatar.

Even more startling is how Pal seems to have crafted the story to appear a certain way to the reader – perhaps in its most truthful form, as distinct from the narrative acceptable to the police force – and by effect, to the public. How much of the truth do we really know? Pal won’t put all her cards on the table.

In doing this, she spins a mystery which feels both dramatic and hyper real, with a sense of eerie calm enveloping it, without any real-time violence. There are revelations, yes, but she does not rely on gimmicky twists, or the crutch of conventional villains or heroes.

What is most satisfying is the unexpected way in which the novel loosens and tightens the grip on the reader. You feel primed to expect a twist here, a red herring there, and yet, you will be surprised that the book does not follow a conventional thriller route. Ultimately, Hush A Bye Baby serves up a topical, speaking-to-its-times feminist drama.

I would have loved it if the plot had thickened some more, delving more deeply into the stormy cyber universe that Gabuji discovers. The offline world Pal creates in pockets of Mumbai and Kolkata feel lived-in and authentic as well, true to their respective subcultures, particularly the references to the traditions of the Bohra community that Gabuji belongs to. The grey in every character shimmers. Is there more in common to Gabuji and Dr Rai than meets the eye in their “mission” to make the world see things their way? There’s another story here. I am left hoping for a sequel.

Hush A Bye Baby, Deepanjana Pal, Juggernaut Books.