Annie Hannah Kuriakose reviews Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Kala Ghoda Affair (Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2023)
In the enthralling world of mystery novels, where secrets and intrigue linger at every turn, The Kala Ghoda Affair by Kalpana Swaminathan stands as a brilliant gem that shimmers with suspense and enigma. This riveting tale, the ninth one from the Lalli mystery series, takes readers on a journey through the shadows of time, delving deep into the heart of a lost jewel mystery that has remained concealed for generations. With a backdrop that encapsulates the city of Mumbai’s rich culture, tumultuous history, and hidden secrets, this novel stands as a testament to the author’s storytelling prowess.
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Set in post-pandemic time, we are introduced to the case known as the Kala Ghoda Affair through the narration of Sita, a young writer on the verge of writing her “greatest” novel, and Lalli’s niece. Lalli, who is known as The Detective, retired from the police in the early 90s and is the Last Resort (evident from the number of files tagged as LR dropped at her doorstep almost every other day) that the police go to when they come across a case that baffles them.
To a first-time reader of the Lalli mystery series by Kalpana Swaminathan, Lalli, and Sita’s relationship might remind them of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but Lalli is more approachable and practical since they both are women who operate on their own and know when to ask for help. Inspector Savio D’sa (brought up and trained by Lalli), Dr. Qureshi, Inspector Shukla, and Sub Inspector Shaktivel are the usual suspects who assist Lalli with her cases.
The mystifying Kala Ghoda
The case of the Kala Ghoda Affair comes through Ramona, Lalli, and Sita’s family friend, who is truly besotted by Madan. Madan’s family is responsible for the disappearance of the Kala Ghoda. Those familiar with the city of Mumbai might think of the iconic Kala Ghoda district, known for its eclectic blend of art, culture, and history, and of course the black stone statue of a horse.
However, the Kala Ghoda in this case happens to be an enchanting sapphire gemstone that went missing 125 years ago. Madan’s aunt Meenaben, the custodian of all things Madan Chor, as the family cheerfully called their blackened ancestor, worries about being branded as thieves if the jewel is ever found; however, she wants the truth to be told. In her words,
“Madan Chor’s dying wish must be respected. “Another Madan one day will prove my innocence.” In that belief, one son in each generation carries his name.”
The readers are then enlightened about the origin of the scandal—a story about a friendship gone sour between a young prince and Madan Chor, a groom in the prince’s stables. The Kala Ghoda sapphire, which was gifted to the prince’s love interest, an unknown but beautiful European lady, had gone missing, and suspicion fell on Madan since the lady left the country due to the outbreak of a plague and entrusted her maid to return the necklace to the prince through Madan.
Unfortunately, Madan is sentenced to the gallows since he attacked a police officer and gets branded as a dangerous criminal. Before being hanged, Madan proclaims that another Madan will clear his name, thus ending the life and story of Madan Chor.
Equipped with this history, Lalli, Sita, and the others embark on the case and make an unlikely connection to the eminent French criminologist, Dr. Edmond Locard, who formulated the basic principle of forensic science: “Every contact leaves a trace”.
The readers also come across the Shade, a criminal with no name, gender, or identity who is known for committing many heinous crimes, and the Rassiwala, a serial killer who strangles his victims with a pink clothesline, playing a cat-and-mouse game with those involved with investigating the case. Clearly, the Kala Ghoda is gathering quite an audience, and it is left to Lalli and Sita to get to the bottom of the case before time runs out and either of them gets killed.
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Kalpana Swaminathan’s understanding of a mystery narrative
The plot of “The Kala Ghoda Affair” is intricately woven, offering a tantalizing mix of mystery and suspense. Kalpana Swaminathan’s deep understanding of Mumbai’s multifaceted nature shines through, adding layers of depth to the narrative.
The narrative vividly paints a picture of the city with age-old mansions and the erstwhile famous Watson’s Hotel, where secrets linger in the most unexpected corners. Moreover, the writing style is evocative and rich, immersing the reader in the sights, sounds, and flavours of Mumbai. The city finds an unlikely companion in food, especially sweets, in solving this mystery.
One of the novel’s strengths is its supporting cast; each character is meticulously developed, contributing to the intricate tapestry of the story. The story’s pacing is well executed, keeping the reader engaged and eager to uncover the truth behind the Kala Ghoda. Twists and turns abound, and Kalpana Swaminathan expertly keeps the suspense simmering throughout, making this book a true page-turner.
The Kala Ghoda Affair by Kalpana Swaminathan is a book that offers more than just a mystery. This novel is an excellent addition to the crime fiction genre, a must-read for those who crave compelling characters, a vivid sense of place, and a mystery that will keep you guessing until the final page. Prepare to be transported into a world of intrigue, double-crosses, and, above all, the enduring allure of a lost jewel that has been shrouded in mystery for a long time.
Locard’s credo seems to have been ‘Every contact leaves a trace’. That sounds like plain common sense to me. If I handle a spoon, I leave a fingerprint. Obvious, right? But then Locard creeps in to point out that the spoon left a trace on me too.
Then how, ask the French, could any criminal survive Locard?Kalpana Swaminathan in The Kala Ghoda Affair- A Lalli Mystery
Have you read a this thrilling detective’s quest for a gemstone? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!