Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Case of the Love Commandos by Tarquin Hall

The Case of the Love Commandos is another multi-faceted adventure of Vishu Puri, head of Most Private Investigators Ltd.

The novel opens with Facecream, an operative of Puri's, who is involved with the volunteer group known as the Love Commandos waiting to meet a client.  She is part of the Love Commandos a group dedicated to helping "Indian couples from disparate castes and religions to marry and settle down, often under aliases."  The Love Commandos believe that India's strict social rules governing arranged marriages where only couples from similar castes are allowed to marry, is preventing the country from modernizing.

Laxmi, Facecream's code name in the Love Commandos is waiting outside the gates of the University of Agra for the arrival of Tulsi, the daughter of Vishnu Mishra, a Thakur or hereditary landowner who made money off India's caste system. Mishra has an army of servants to cook, clean, dress and manage every aspect of his life. But Mishra's daughter, Tulsi, has fallen in love with Ram Sundra who belongs to the Dalit or "untouchable" caste. Although they both are from rural Uttar Pradesh, they met at the University of Agra. Mishra had blocked all communication between Ram and  Tulsi, threatening to kill Ram if he continued to pursue his daughter. Tulsi had been a virtual prisoner in her family's villa in Agra and she was scheduled to be married within the week.  Ram approached the Love Commandos for help.

The Love Commandos are hoping to help her escape from her father when she goes to write her examinations at the University of Agra. They will then take her to see Ram who is waiting at a safe house. However, things do not go as planned. First off, as Tulsi is escaping through the bathroom window, she is caught by her father. She manages to escape out the window and onto the scootie Laxmi is driving. When they arrive at the safe house, Laxmi discovers that Ram is missing and it appears that he has been kidnapped. Tulsi calls her father and begs him not to hurt Ram but Mishra tells her he doesn't know where Ram is. Laxmi decides to call her boss, Vishu Puri.

Puri is in the midst of  trying to avoid a family trip to the top of the Trikuta Mountain to visit the Vaishno Devi shrine. Things have not been going well for Vishu Puri. Although he had nabbed the thieves in the 2.5 crore jewelry heist which occurred at the "Jains' multi-million-dollar luxury Delhi villa", Vishu has been unable to locate the missing jewelry. Aggravated by this fact he doesn't want to go on vacation, but is seemingly convinced by his faithful secretary, Elizabeth Rani, Puri heads to the Delhi Railway Station station to see Rumpi, Mummy-Ji and his fifteen year old nephew, Chetan off. On his way out of the train, Puri is forced to squish by a very large man whom he later discovers has pickpocketed his wallet.

Puri makes this discovery on his own train which is headed to Lucknow in the Uttar Pradesh region.  Ram's village, Govind, is to the west of Lucknow. Regarding his wallet, Puri contacts Rumpi by mobile and gives her a description of the suspect. Although he doesn't want his Mummy-Ji involved, there's no stopping her. Mummy-Ji walks through the various cars of the train taking pictures of obese men with moustaches. After sending the pictures to Puri, they locate the man, Pranap Dughal and have Inspector Malhotra, the deputy chief of police meet them at the station in Jammu. Puri's wallet is discovered under a table and the man, Pranap Dughal, and his wife are allowed to leave.

Meanwhile Puri meets Facecream in Lucknow and then travels onto Govind where he expects Mishra to show up looking for Ram. Govind is strictly segregated with the Dalit ghetto on the edge of the village. The village chowkidar shows Puri, Ram Sunder's family's new home and Puri meets Ram's father who has been beaten and learns that Ram's mother, Kamlesh left the village the previous night and has not returned. He also discovers that something was dug up in the backyard. As Puri is leaving the village, Vishnu Mishra shows up but is arrested for the murder of Ram Sunder's mother who was found in a canal near Mishra's ancestral village.

After Puri's escapade in Govind, Facecream disguises herself as a schoolteacher and arrives at the village with the intention of learning why Mrs. Sunder left her village in the middle of the night on foot and what happened to her. In Govind she meets a boy, Deep who may hold the clue to what happened to Kamlesh Sunder.

Back in Jammu, the Dughals and the Puri's are preparing to embark on the same pilgrimage to the Vaishno Devi shrine. Convinced that Pranap Dughal is up to no good, Mummy-Ji  begins "doing surveillance" on Dughal, determined to catch him in the act of something nefarious.

From this point on the novel weaves the threads of three stories - Puri as he hunts for Ram Sunder and tries to untangle the mystery of Kamlesh Sunder's murder, Rumpi and Mummy-Ji as they follow a pickpocket they believe is going to kill his wife, and Facecream who is attempting to trace the last steps of Ram Sunder's mother before she was murdered.It's a case that will involve that brings together political intrigue, corruption and India's ancient caste system that is threatened by the new insights modern genetic testing can provide.

The Case of the Love Commandos is Hall's best novel to date. While Puri, Rumpi and Mummy-Ji are by now, well known main characters, new insights are provided about Facecream whose background from an untouchable caste causes her to be compassionate towards the children and families in Govind who suffer from discrimination and the resulting grinding poverty. Facecream had experimented with Marxism in an attempt to fight the corruption but she now believes that education is the solution to changing society.

As usual the dialogue is amusing, the ever-present corruption is (realistically) used to further the plot, and there is the wonderful hilarious dynamics between Rumpi, Puri and his mother Mummy-Ji that we've come to expect and relish. The usual cast from Most Private Investigators; Flush, the electronics expert, Tubelight an operative, Handbrake his driver, Door Stop the office boy make brief appearances

Although The Case of the Love Commandos is an entertaining crime novel, with a story that touches on some of the issues that confront modern India today; widespread corruption of police and the judicial system, a political system that manipulates the castes for votes, the destructive influence of the caste system in India which sees low-caste Indians exploited by their higher-caste counterparts and the continued practice of arranged marriages as well as the forbidding of  marriages between certain castes that cause family discord and further entrench discrimination in Indian society.

The Case of the Love Commandos is an immensely enjoyable novel, with plenty of humour, a suspenseful finish  that neatly ties up all the loose ends and further proves that Vishnu Puri is not the only brilliant detective in the Puri family!

There's more of the wonderful Indian recipes at the back of the novel (food as usual plays an important part in Puri's day to day life!) and an extensive glossary of Indian terms.

Book Details:
The Case of the Love Commandos by Tarquin Hall
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart       2013
310 pp.

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