Chetan Bhagat’s thriller One Arranged Murder seems apt in this era of the media-drenched coverage of a Bollywood star’s suicide (no-longer-a-murder). As the philosopher William James remarked over a century ago, it is the possibility of violent death that is the soul of all romance. This is salutary to remember when one wonders what it is that is so compelling about the violent death of the young – what turns readers, viewers and citizens into such unabashed voyeurs? Why is this voyeurism completely without censure or sanction or introspection in India today?
This is the psyche that Bhagat taps into in his latest thriller, a continuation of his exploration of the genre that began with The Girl in Room 105. In One Arranged Murder, Bhagat’s plot revolves around a young, professional woman (Prerna) and her sudden death through a fall from the terrace of her three-storey house. It seems unlikely to be suicide, and the large joint family around her has many characters who emerge, amid the numerous turns and twists, to be leading suspects, at different stages of the novel.
The book moves by guiding the reader into first suspecting one character, then disclosing simultaneously why that character could not have committed the deed and why thus the finger of suspicion must fall on another. The investigation is performed by Prerna’s fiancé Saurabh and his close friend Keshav, familiar from Bhagat’s earlier book. The two friends happen to be amateur sleuths and have helped the police on numerous occasions before – thus the police allow them to conduct a parallel investigation (this premise is not the most credible one in the book).
On the button
Though Bhagat thanks the readers in the Acknowledgments section for reading a book instead of Instagramming or watching videos on YouTube, the book partakes of the same world of gratuitous wealth as any Karan Johar fare (engagement ceremonies costing fifty lakhs, Porsche dealerships, palatial houses in up-market parts of the city worth thirty crores and counting). Having said that, the success of Bhagat is in his capturing of the minutiae of a certain class of Delhi – an ear for the sparring, sometimes humorous, often banal colloquialisms of a young, ambitious professional class. This is a feverish world of start-ups, of harsh and condescending doctors, of street and markets, of “Haldiram’s in C Block Old Market in Malviya Nagar” appearing in an Anglophone novel, of intense male homo-sociality and casual hook-ups.
Further sub-themes captured in a register of precise casualness include the cynically symbiotic relationship between the media and the police, whereby both organs of the democratic order are less interested in justice, and more in their individual career progress. Bhagat also captures, albeit more fleetingly and less suggestively, the fraught and manipulative relationships the middle-class has with domestic help, their drivers, their employees in family businesses, their poorer cousins in non-metropolitan India and so on.
Thus, though the premise and the dénouement of the thriller are, to this reviewer at least rather improbable, the attainments in the novel lie in its appraisal of the contemporary, multi-generational Indian family. It is social commentary in the veil of a thriller (and this is a good thing). For the presumed addressee of the novel (the Indian middle class), is in the midst of a contradiction: On the one hand, there is a strident rhetoric of the family as the lynchpin of a conservative social order—this is not dissimilar from similar calls in the West.
On the other hand, the book also documents the pervasive unravelling of that mode of the traditional family – the desire for more private, nuclear families, the rise of unmarried professionals, of child-free couple-or bachelor-hood, of strong male homo-social bonds that seem to not really need marriage, and so on. Bhagat, through the use of unnatural death evokes these mixed anxieties of decay, downfall and confusion – one seems always already familiar with notions of honour killings (one recalls the 2008 “double murder Aarushi case” in Noida).
The novel depends on those familiar anxieties of class and family to power the reader on – the domestic help (and their social sphere) are naturally among the early suspects. Bhagat’s forte however is not the representation of this class, and he is more at home as one climbs the class-ladder of suspicion and guilt.
The Indian middle-class household thus is a mixture of socio-economic strata, whereby it is unclear what the boundaries of the notion of family itself are. Bhagat engages with several such stereotypes that haunt the edges of this global, extended family – the judgmental US-returned Anjali working in “left-wing” publications, the younger, musician brother who does not make as much money as the elder one and who (thus?) has only fleeting relationships and casual drug use, the secret sexual histories of shadowy aunts who can’t be accommodated in stable family narratives. It is in engaging the reader in this slow-motion unspooling of the metropolitan social ethos that Bhagat offers a skilled and distinct vantage point.
Nikhil Govind is the Head of the Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal University.
One Arranged Murder, Chetan Bhagat, Westland.