The Blurb On The Back:
On the day he retires, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovers that he has inherited an elephant: an unlikely gift that could not be more inconvenient. For Chopra has one last case to solve …
But as his murder investigation leads him across Mumbai – from the richest mansions to its murky underworld – he quickly discovers that a baby elephant may be exactly what an honest man needs.
So begins the start of a quite unexpected partnership, and an utterly delightful new series.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Inspector Ashwin Chopra was already dreading his last day working at the Sahar police station in Mumbai when a letter arrives from his Uncle Bansi telling him that he is sending him a baby elephant to look after. An honest and principled man who believes in duty and the importance of upholding the law without fear or favour, Chopra has spent over 30 years as a policeman and is only taking early retirement following a serious heart attack and subsequent diagnosis of angina. The prospect of a long retirement was worrying him enough without having to throw a baby elephant into the mix.
On Chopra’s last day the body of a young man – Santosh Achrekar – is found in a sewage creek. Chopra’s loyal Sub-Inspector, the street smart Rangwalla thinks it’s a clear case of accidental drowning because the body was found next to a bottle of whiskey, suggesting that Achrekar was drunk and fell in. However his grief-stricken mother insists that he was murdered and that the police are denying her and her husband justice simply because they are poor and do not count.
Ordinarily, Chopra would ensure that at the very least the proper procedure was followed so that the parents had some comfort that appropriate steps were being followed, but as it’s his last day he has to pass it over to his successor, Inspector Suryavansh – a bully and a drunk who Chopra knows will not do a good job. Nor does Chopra have any comfort that his superiors will demand a proper investigation, given that his superior Assistant Commissioner of Police Raz makes an unusual point of calling him on his last day to tell him to hand Achrekar’s body over to the hospital so it can be cremated and disposed of.
Meanwhile the arrival of the baby elephant is causing ructions in Chopra’s home life. His supportive wife Poppy is determined to keep the elephant – who is named Baby Ganesha – if only because she knows that its presence annoys the fearsome Mrs Subramanium who ruled the Air Force Colony apartment complex as an unchallenged tyrant until Chopra and Poppy moved in and Poppy started questioning and organising opposition to her whims. But the Chopra’s 15th floor apartment is no place for a young elephant and Chopra’s mother-in-law, Poornima Devi (who has never approved of Chopra) is adamant that it cannot stay in their home and must remain outside. As if that wasn’t enough, Baby Ganesha appears anxious, refusing to eat and generally looking very down in the dumps. Given that Baby Ganesha is already on the small side for an elephant, Chopra is concerned about how he’s going to look after him and what, exactly, to do with him.
But Chopra’s Uncle Bansi told Chopra that Baby Ganesha was no ordinary elephant and as Chopra decides to take a look at Achrekar’s death himself, he finds that having the elephant tag along on his investigation, while awkward at times, can also be a real benefit. And as Chopra digs into Achrekar’s background, he finds himself caught up in Mumbai’s electoral politics, the glitz of west capitalism and old fashioned corruption, including an unexpected face from his past …
The first in Vaseem Khan’s BABY GANESHA AGENCY SERIES is a delightful cosy crime novel that includes the grit of poverty, economic change and corruption. Chopra is an interesting character, who feels increasingly anachronistic in modern India while mourning for what his country is becoming and I enjoyed his relationship with the spirited Poppy who enjoys modern developments while Ganesha brings playful whimsy. I will definitely read on.
I picked this up because a couple of years ago I got a review copy of the third in the series – THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF A BOLLYWOOD STAR – which I thoroughly enjoyed and made me want to go back and start at the beginning.
There is a lot of set up in this book, mainly of Chopra and his wife Poppy as characters, but also setting up Mumbai as a location and the world in which the pair live and operate. There’s an interesting distinction here with Chopra’s storyline focusing on the crime element and the impact of corruption, the realities of policing and politics and the life of the poor in the city. Poppy’s storyline is more on the domestic side but there’s a lot about societal and family pressure in her plot line as well as she feels the pressure of not being able to have children while her cousin has to deal with the prospect of having a pregnant and unwed teenage daughter and the shame that would bring on her privileged life.
Chopra is portrayed very much as a man who feels at odds with the direction that India is going in. A man of principle and integrity, he is dismayed by the increasing focus on money and media, viewing the ever sprawling shopping malls and Indian soap operas that Poppy enjoys with equal dismay. At the same time, his is not a romantic view of India, he recognises its faults even as he loves its strengths. I liked his dedication to doing the right thing and both the compassion and sternness he brought in his dealings with Mumbai’s citizens. I also enjoyed the way Khan shows his love for his wife (and Poppy’s love for him), even though the two are not great at communicating their feelings.
The side characters are more thinly drawn, Rangwalla in particular is little more than a name on the page here while Mrs Subramanium and Poornima risk tipping into Les Dawson style battle axes (which is amusing but still very broad). Mumbai, however, really comes across very vividly as a city of contrasts and resilience and it’s clear that Khan has a lot of affection for the place, even as he writes of its shortcomings and the resourcefulness of its inhabitants.
The investigation is perhaps a tad too predictable, which is not surprising in the first in a series because the author is usually finding his feet. Even so, I have to say that I did identify one of the culprits within the opening chapters even though I didn’t quite get the motive until later on. That said, I still enjoyed the journey not least because Khan makes use of the detective’s ability to move through every strata and sector of society. A scene where the staid inspector has to go to a house of ill repute is particularly well done, particularly his embarrassment when he bumps into a former colleague of his who he knows has jumped to the wrong conclusion and will gleefully spread it among his other former colleagues.
However, Baby Ganesha doesn’t really get involved in the investigation until the half way point and even then it’s quite accidentally. Again, that’s not surprising because it is difficult to get a baby elephant into the plot and I should say that part of the fun is seeing how Chopra (and the wider public) reacts to him. Even so, a key scene later on involving Baby Ganesha effectively coming to the rescue at a critical time has a very deus ex machina vibe to it that doesn’t sit neatly with the feel of the rest of the book and while Khan alludes to something spiritual going on, the lack of any real further consideration of that just makes it feel tacked on.
My criticisms aside, I did enjoy this book and you can see already the seeds of what promises to be a charming series. I have added the rest of the series to my To Buy List and will definitely be reading on.