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  • Ninay Desai

A Death in the Himalayas by Udayan Mukherjee

Set in the hilly environs of an idyllic little village in the Himalayas, this novel sets the stage early with an English activist found bludgeoned to death in the nearby forest. Clare Watson is a victim with many supporters, quite a few enemies and a secret or two.

A copy of A Death in the Himalayas by Udayan Mukherjee lies face down on a chair with striped green upholstery. A white woollen muffler is tossed casually on the chair. Photo by Ninay Desai

Udayan Mukherjee introduces us to Neville Wadia, a suave, former policeman who stepped away from the force before he could become Commissioner of Police, and his journalist wife, Shehnaz. Moving away from the noise and dust of the metropolis of Mumbai, they chose to settle into an earthy but cosy cottage adjoining a resort in Birtola, a hamlet in the Himalayas. It is here that they came in contact with Clare and her husband, Tom, and struck up a friendship. In the opening chapter, a nightmare leads to exposition about Neville’s past. We are told that Neville is haunted by the brutal killing of a young girl he had sworn to protect.

A Death in the Himalayas appears to the first book of a series with Neville Wadia as detective but he has to be nudged into investigating this case by Satish Kalia. Satish is the policeman dispatched from New Delhi to lead the investigation because of the high profile of the victim who was a controversial author and fiery women’s rights and environmental activist. SK, as Satish is referred to in the book, is a long-time admirer of Wadia and asks him to investigate alongside, albeit in an unofficial capacity. That Neville knows and is known by most of the persons of interest is an added advantage to the probe.

The line-up of suspects in A Death in the Himalayas is a combination of people with personal and professional grudges against the victim and alibis as wobbly as jelly. The motives also highlight the themes of corruption, the rampant and reckless development of ecologically-delicate mountainous regions and more subtly, the difference in the perspectives of the haves versus the have-nots on such subjects. Another pertinent idea is that of past mistakes or crimes casting long shadows whether in the case of Neville carrying the burden of his failure to keep his word to his witness in an old case or the possible motives for Clare’s murder.

As a mystery, it’s sufficiently engaging with an ample array of the genre’s staple, red herrings. But there are certain aspects of the plot that just don’t ring true. For instance, there is a great deal of media interest in the case, we are told. Told, not shown. Never have I witnessed such a timid and rule-abiding set of journalists, that are happy to sit by the side-lines as the investigating agency does its job, as seen in this novel. The author, having been a journalist for many years, would know that. Apart from being more realistic and perhaps furnishing the novel with a plot point or two, it would have injected a sense of urgency into the narrative that is sorely lacking. The momentum seems rather relaxed even after danger is said to be lurking round every corner. The surprisingly lengthy final chapters also curtail the pace of the storytelling.

As someone who doesn’t read too many Indian authors mostly because a lot of them have a penchant for needlessly exoticizing the most basic Indian items of clothing or food. I was relieved to not see any of that in A Death in the Himalayas. Whether that is because the author isn’t trying to push his novel into the literary fiction genre that usually tends to look westward for approval or because he wanted to write an unapologetic cosy mystery isn’t something that I’m aware of. Either way, this is a novel written for an Indian audience or anyone who has access to Google just in case they aren’t aware of say, the stereotypes associated with certain communities or are unfamiliar with the famed good looks of a yesteryear Indian actor. For me, the absence of gratuitous explanations of dal as a spiced lentil soup were most welcome.

All in all, A Death in the Himalayas is a quick and fairly enjoyable read, best served on a cold day with a hot cup of coffee!

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1 Comment

Jun 02, 2023

Sounds like a thrilling book and a must-read! thanks, Ninay!

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