It begins when a six-year-old girl from Kandewadi, a small slum near Andheri in Mumbai, goes missing. Pinky is the first to go, followed by Jamila, Mary, Sindhu and Tara.
Panic grips the slum when these children are returned as mutilated corpses. Lalli takes charge of the investigation with police officers Savio and Shukla, and her niece Sita. Written from Sita's point of view, Kalpana Swaminathan's latest book slowly opens to an unimaginable cruel world of crime.
The book has dealt with issues such as child abuse, politics that can sell and buy anything, helplessness of honest officials, pseudo-feminism, etc. Though crime fiction written by Indian authors highlights several issues and makes the reader ask pertinent questions, there's often a tendency to dismiss such writing as 'pulp fiction'. It is unfortunate.
If you put down a list of serious crime novels, Kalpana Swaminathan's ' Greenlight' will be the first in the category. It is her sixth book in the Lalli series.
Who is Lalli? She is a retired police detective with ace shooting skills. She is in her sixties and is ruling the roost in a world dominated by men. If there is a murder, Lalli is the last resort even for the police.
The book is unputdownable. It's a relief to know that Indian writers can create novels in this genre that can compete with the West.
The book throws light on the bizarre mindset of people. On one side, there is the world of the rich, who believe in committing horrendous crimes just for the sake of thrills. They brutalise slum children purely because they do not consider them worthy of living in this world. Then there are the slum dwellers, who refuse to empathise with Tara's mother, a sex worker, even after Tara is abducted and killed. They even pray for Tara's death just because her mother is a sex-worker; they think she deserves it.
What I also like about the book is the author's scathing take on 'pseudo-feminism'. In a meeting called by Seema, the journalist who is following the Kandewadi story, women easily forget the atrocities and rape and easily shift their attention to take it as a platform to indulge in their own selfish interests – some writes articles, poem, etc. One has killed her foetus and has written a poem on it justifying her actions that she aborted it to save the foetus from the world. She has taken the decision after reading the Kandewadi incidents.
Sita who could not bear this hypocrisy comes out of the meeting and thinks to herself, " I had lacked the courage I might have had five years ago to tell those women what a misogynystic bunch of voyeurs, they were, what pathetic human beings they were, if their only response to the pain of others was to trot out sorry tales of their own. I wondered what they would have said, or done, if they had seen Tara in her empty hut."
Calling ' Lalli' a ' Desi Miss Marple' will not do any justification to the rounded character Kalpana Swaminathan has created. Even the author clarified once that Lalli is not like Miss Marple. There are no similarities barring the fact that they love sleuthing. Like Miss Marple of Agatha Christie, Lalli has her own identity.
One thing that could have been avoided is the gory description of the brutalities committed to the children. It's horrendous. It reminded me of the books written by a renowned writer of crime fiction, Tess Gerritsen. Perhaps, it might be due to their background as medical doctors which enable them to write such graphic details.
When the story ends, Swaminathan puts across a question: "The Cry, How can I bear that someone should use my body like this? It is usually read as a woman's outrage. But isn't it equally a man's? It is men who should protest against rape, and not women."
Shalet Jimmy, Freelance Journalist, Book Reviewer & Travel Writer