- - Friday, September 28, 2012

By Tarquin Hall
Simon and Schuster, $24, 352 pages

It’s very difficult to resist a book about a deadly butter chicken, especially when it boasts characters such as Face Cream, Tubelight and Chanel No. 5, who are also in pursuit of a stolen moustache.

This isn’t so much a mystery as an Indian romp led by Vish Puri, the private detective also known as Chubby, who tantalizes readers with recipes for the delectable Indian dishes he gobbles up on page after page. Including the one for the poisoned chicken.

However, it has to be kept in mind that despite all the fun and ribaldry, Tarquin Hall is as much historian as humorist and he evokes the India where he lives and which he obviously loves, presenting it as a vivid world of color and savory fragrances with traditions still linked to the years of British colonization. He blends a puckish humor with recollections of the suffering during the 1947 British partition of India and Pakistan, the ensuing brutality and the lingering bitterness.

And one of Mr. Hall’s most engaging characters is Mummy-ji, a redoubtable lady who is Puri’s mother and a better detective than he is. She also has a colorful background, suddenly disclosed to her son, of the violent years when she was a volunteer for the Indian Relief and Recovery Operation, a group that devoted itself to rescuing Hindu and Sikh women who had been abducted to Pakistan. Knitted through pages of bizarre events that include Puri’s favorite recipes are Mummy-ji’s shocking revelations that ultimately solve the mystery of who poisoned the chicken that killed the man who ate it.

Puri’s assorted investigators sound like a musical comedy team, and the author indulges his taste for satire in the case of the stolen moustache. Since Puri himself prides himself on possessing a magnificent moustache of his own, he empathizes with Satya Pal Bhalla, a bureaucrat whose ambition in life is to have his “thirteen foot leviathan” of a moustache qualify for the Limca Book of Records.

Then tragedy strikes.

“Now it seemed his career was over His moustache’s left tendril had been completely shorn off, leaving the right section still curled around his cheek like a Danish pastry.”

Puri is hired to find the moustache vandal, but he is distracted by the case of the deadly chicken. Fareem Khan, elderly father of a prominent Pakistani cricketer collapses in the middle of a banquet after consuming a butter chicken that has been injected with aconite. Puri is hired on the chicken case by the International Cricket Foundation anti-corruption unit, known as Clean Up Cricket and is grateful because he needs the money. He has a risky encounter with a bookkeeper known as Full Moon who also falls victim to poison. It is at this point that, to her son’s alarm, Mummy-ji takes over the case, and plays a major role in solving the crimes. (And in case anyone gets bored, there is an interlude involving smuggled diamonds and a character called Oily Face.)

In the course of the chicken caper, Puri reluctantly goes to Pakistan, which he has sadly come to view as a “distant disconnected entity.”

Puri who grew up roaming the streets of Delhi, is saddened that although India and Pakistan shared thousands of years of history and a common language, mutual distrust now defined the relationship between the two modern nations. He recalls the richness of the ancient language in which such a simple phrase as “the moon rose” would be rendered “the sorcerer of this world changed his robes.” He is bitter that modern Hindi has been “systematically purged of most of its Persian and Arabic words.” It is this kind of historic reflection by his protagonist that makes Mr. Hall’s story such a rich mixture of nostalgia and memory. However it is the diaries of Mummy-ji’s life when she rescued and saved abused women that become not only the answer but a reminder of times that still live in the minds of those who survived them.

These are memories that feed the need for vengeance. Memories that led after many years to using a butter chicken to bring about the death of an evil man. And it is Mummy-ji who knows who poisoned the chicken. She doesn’t blame the poisoner.

With the major case solved, Puri resolves the mystery of the vandalized moustache, which is more poignant than criminal, and goes back to worrying about his weight. Urged by his wife to lose a few pounds, he has tricked her by rigging the scales and gone on eating.

Constantly, Puri eats. He wolfs down forbidden aloo tikki (fried spicy potato patties) and provides every detail on how to make Mummy’s most excellent Punjabi curry, not to mention deadly delicious butter chicken. Without the poison.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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