forced me to write a murder.
Consider the circumstances: the roads were flooded, the phone was dead, the TV on the blink. The streetlights showed blurry gold through the slant of rain. The mad world that seethed outside could go hang itself.
A fragrant waft from my cup of coffee filled the room. I drew up my favorite chair. All I needed to complete my delicious solitude was—a murder.
I needed a book that would ensconce me. I wanted a book that would pitch me into chaos, and then, magically, set things right again. A book with a beginning, a middle and an end. A book that was fun. I wanted a detective story.
The shelf across the room is full of murders. The two lower shelves hold my mother’s recherché collection of ‘fifties crime—White Circle, Crime Club, Green Penguins . Little gems, most of them, their authors forgotten, but each tattered spine flashes a faint scintilla of light as warning: haven’t we met before?
The middle shelves sag. All the favorites are in here. Earnest Dorothy Sayers: murder by the stop-watch. Ngaio Marsh, frothy and smart. Inspector Maigret and Hercule Poirot, agreeing to disagree. Baroness PD James plodding her petty pace. Clever, wicked Ruth Rendell. Minette Walters, Nicci French. Policemen by the pack. Coroners, lawyers, shrinks…
The top shelf – aha! The unread. Six of ‘em. Which should I choose?
The first had flies on the cover. Have you noticed how the newest detective fiction is mostly advanced entomology? Your worm is your only emperor…
The second fell open at a description of something called a Mexican necktie and it wasn’t sartorial, believe you me…The third was so blebby with putrefaction that I had to put it back hastily and do a surgical scrub.
The fourth and the fifth were tortured diaries of the complicated sex lives of people who didn’t deserve to have any.
The sixth was the most complicated, all of it lifted from the FBI archives on the net. I lost the coffee splat on the second paragraph.
Six books, and not one good murder in the lot!
I wanted a detective story and I was going to get myself one. A story where folk were startled out of comic normalcy by the bizarre incident of murder. . I had to find that book somewhere.
What else could I do but hit the keyboard?
The book took several weekends to write, but when it was done, it was my weekend luxury: it had food, romance, music. It also had people I could live with, all of them hermetically sealed in the villa of my dreams.
It wasn’t till Page Three Murders was almost complete that I admitted to a darker agenda. The villa had nothing to do with it, or even the murder. The book was about Lalli.
Who was she? How did she arrive with such ease? She inhabited the book as if she’d lived in it for years. I’d know her at once if I ran into her on the street. We might exchange a look of intelligence or irony as we passed each other on the stairs. She had the kind of face I’d known all my life. She was family. And yet, strictly speaking, I’d never met anyone like her before.
Perhaps I needed to.
Perhaps the chaotic city in which I’d pitched my tent demanded Lalli. It demanded someone who lived in the maelstrom and yet kept her solitude. Someone whose relish in its chaos came from an understanding of its inherent peace. Someone who had lived a lifetime in Bombay and hadn’t yet lost faith in the city.
She had to be a detective - to assure me that Bombay is still a city full of real people -- not a masala movie made by an ‘underworld don’ with a bunch of Bollywood chamchas. Real people need real reasons for the unreasonable things they sometimes do. Real people expect justice.
Lalli has the anger and the fight that real people sometimes lack . I don’t know much about her past, she hasn’t yet told me what made her the woman she is.
Maybe she never will. But since Page Three was published, I’ve had readers telling me things I hadn’t noticed about her.
They admire her for putting up with her twitchy niece. Her wardrobe has been discussed (I hadn’t a clue what she was wearing) There have been discreet enquiries about her love life. I have been sternly advised not to mess with her: by which I imagine I have been warned off devices and caprices. No violins, no square eggs, no Aston-Martins, no slashed oil paintings or Italian cookbooks, no pink woolly knitting.
I must warn you, though. I’m half way through the next book where Lalli has a murder at home. And I have no idea, absolutely no idea what she’s going to do…
Kalpana Swaminathan is a surgeon and writer. She is the author of the novel Ambrosia for Afters and a collection of detective stories, Cryptic Death. She has also written six books for children. She shares the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna with Ishrat Syed, and their writings on science, the arts and literature appear in several publications.
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