Satanic prose or a Passage to England
Its a long way from Liluah to Liverpool
The whodunit has been written by a partner of a Big 4 accounting firm who lived in Liluah -now lives in Wales but works in London-a fascinating story of Anglo-Indians in India in by-gone days-reminds one of 36 Chowringhee Lane.
Excerpt from a review:
One can taste and smell the subcontinent on every page of Mrs D’Silva’s Detective Instincts and the Shaitan of Cakcutta (Carnival) by Glen Peters.This debut novel is a gripping crime thriller highlighting tensions in post colonial India which are similar to those in contemporary South Africa says William Saunderson-Meyer in The Weekender
GLEN Peters, interviewed during one of his regular forays into Africa, is one of those annoying people who seem able to segue effortlessly from one area of competence into another.
He is a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in London, specialising in strategic management. He is also a yachtsman, a prize- winning photographer, a gourmand, and established an opera house in the depths of the Welsh countryside on the financially scary Field of Dreams premise: “Build it and they shall come”.
Peters has just written a remarkably assured first novel, based on his childhood experience of Anglo-Indian society. It is not only a gripping crime thriller with a political dimension, but also explores what causes one to “belong” as a minority in a racially diverse society.
Mrs Joan D’Silva, who teaches at a Catholic school in Calcutta, is a 32-year-old widow with a young son, Errol. Unlike many of her mixed-race compatriots, who as former servants of the British Raj are finding it difficult to adapt to life in the New India of the early 1960s, D’Silva wants to be part of this blossoming society which, although beset with crushing social problems and political instability, is fumbling towards its own interpretation of democracy.
During a picnic at a river, Errol discovers the washed-up body of a young woman. Foul play cannot be ruled out and D’Silva, riled by the dismissive attitude of the authorities, and her interest piqued by the involvement of some of her former pupils in the girl’s life, has her detective instincts awakened.
Peters says postcolonial India has fascinating echoes with a post-apartheid SA.
“In both societies, there is a sudden gap that has to be filled. In India it was for the departing colonial masters, in SA it is for the unseated dominant race and previously favoured groups.”
Indeed. What could be more contemporary to a local reader than this description by Peters of the tensions between the Bench and the civil administration? “Most of the judges were considered to be far too pukka and into their (colonial) ways … (while) the judiciary regarded the police as bumbling, incompetent Boy Scouts, quite often open to corruption to inflate their meagre salaries.”
Or this description by a journalist of the dubious nostalgia that rapid change evokes: “The police are just as corrupt as the crooks, only not as competent…. The country is going to hell minutes after independence. People are saying they wish the (colonialists) were back. Life was much better under them. What good is freedom when you starve?”
In Calcutta, this process of societal transformation is one of barely controlled chaos and brings to the surface all sorts of previously buried tensions.
D’Silva soon finds, when her son is kidnapped, that the young girl’s death is part of a broader process of political upheaval, as a Maoist revolutionary group — under the leadership of the shaitan (devil) of the title — tries to subvert a fragile Indian democracy, at the time of the tale just 14 years old.
In every action and thought, D’Silva is a modern woman, dropped into a period piece — a time of bounders and blighters, of chaps and gals, and tucking into tiffin boxes. Peters says she is a composite of the strong women he has known in his life — his wife and mother .
The book draws on Peters’s childhood in India as a child of mixed-race descent, part of the elite that ran the railway, before he left for “a life of greater opportunity” in England at age 15. It has a convincing authenticity: one can taste and smell the subcontinent on every page.
D’Silva was not written as a sociopolitical examination of the New India’s faltering first steps, however well it may depict that turbulent period. It was written as a detective story and despite Peters’s idiosyncratic addition of sociological treatise, recipe book and train-spotter guide, that is what it succeeds as.
In the argot of that time, it is a ripping good yarn and the ending is sufficiently ambiguous to give one hope that one might see more of Mrs D’Silva in the future.