Sneha Pathak reviews The Fast and the Dead by Anuja Chauhan (HarperCollins India, 2023)
I started reading Anuja Chauhan’s second novel in the ACP Bhavani series on Karwachauth, or ‘KC’ according to the book. KC is also the day when the main action of the book begins, and I was able to finish it in four days, much before Diwali, when the book enters its final phase.
Set within this period of less than a month, ACP Bhavani’s second outing is an entertaining, masala read written in quintessential Chauhan style featuring quirky characters, a romance, a scattering of Kannada-Hindi phrases, some social issues that are clearly close to her own heart, and a central murder-mystery (or two).
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Anuja Chauhan’s Writing
The action of The Fast and the Dead by Anuja Chauhan takes place in Bengaluru’s exotic Habba galli which Chauhan’s narrator describes as “The iconic one-kilometre stretch [that] runs right through the heart of Bangalore’s commercial business district.” The galli “boasts of a Starbucks, a gold souk, lehenga/gown boutiques, fabric stalls, bartan shops and posh kebaberies” along with some mixed-style residential buildings. It is also where ACP Bhavani is spending his first “yearly honeymoon” with his wife Shalini.
Habba galli is home to a host of eccentric characters that stay in the reader’s mind easily. Be it the old Dondi Pais, who shows off her gun ‘gunny boy’ to the entire neighbourhood on the day of ayudha pooja or be it Jaishree Rao, the newly bankrupt–newly divorced–newly working mother of the vet Jhoomar ‘Jhoom’ Rao.
Be it the rich jeweller Sushil Kedia, a man who derives pleasure from belittling everyone around him, be it Charu Tomar, the nosy neighbour and self-proclaimed bhakt of the Matarani, or be it the carpet seller Mehta bhai, who drops a ‘b’ from the end of his name depending upon who he is talking to.
Recommended Reads:Club you to Death by Anuja Chauhan
Characters and Storytelling
There are also Aisha Sait and her son Haider ‘Hadi’ Sait who is a film star and nurses a massive crush on Jhoom since their childhood; there is Peter Pais, the colourless personality whose only claim to fame is how well he looks after his difficult mother Dondi Pais; there is Krish, who is the host of the Airbnb Bhavani is staying at besides being the first love of Sona, who now lives in the same galli with her husband Harsh Kedia, her M-I-L Pooja Kedia, F-I-L Sushil Kedia, and Harsh’s younger brother Sparsh.
Then there are those denizens of the galli over whom the population is divided into two camps and whose existence, indirectly, sets the stage for the murder of Sushil Kedia. These include names like Roganjosh, Darponk and Bachchan – the stray dogs of the area over whom the neighbourhood is divided into two camps.
As ACP Bhavani later tells the characters, the entire action of the novel can be divided into three acts. The first act begins on Dussehra when the aged Dondi Pais makes a public display of her gun – ‘gunny boy’ – before the entire populace of the area on Vijayadashmi. The second act happens on the night of Karwa Chauth when she apparently takes a shot at the stray dogs right at the moment when everyone is looking at the moon that has just risen.
When her neighbour Sushil Kedia is found shot the next morning, everyone initially believes that it must have been a stray bullet from a gunny boy that has led Sushil Kedia to his death. But soon, rumours begin to fly and the third act takes place when the nosy Charu Tomar is killed before she can make allegations on national television. ACP Bhavani steps in officially right after the first murder to assist the local police and is successful in finding the real culprit in a maze full of motley suspects, all with motives to have offed the dead man.
Plot and the Suspense
Anuja Chauhan’s novel makes for a speedy and entertaining reading and manages to find the perfect balance between romance and mystery. There is the blooming romance between Haider Sait and Jhoomar Rao at the heart of the story and as the novel progresses, they bond while saving Roganjosh and then later trying to understand what they feel about each other. Theirs is a sweet love story, the kind that all romantics at heart are going to go “aww” about, with romantic scenes that rival those of any good romantic novel. On the mystery side too, the book keeps its promise and delivers an intriguing puzzle following all the parameters of a traditional whodunit.
There’s the intelligent yet calm sleuth in the form of Bhavani Singh whose demeanour at times reminded me of Poirot in his ‘papa Poirot’ avatar when he convinces suspects to unburden themselves before him, there’s the closed circle of suspects in the form of the residents of the area, there is the multiplicity of motives that keep the reader guessing, and then there’s the final twist in the tale which is quite well executed.
Besides the romance and the mystery, Chauhan also makes it a point to touch upon the various issues that feel very contemporary in today’s India and seem to be close to her heart. The fierce debate over the strays, who inspire fear in some and love in others, is at the heart of the novel. There is a “pilla party” in Habba galli which, according to the book’s acknowledgement section, is based on the real-life PAWSS of which Chauhan has been a part since the beginning.
Then there’s also a clear demarcation between characters who are traditional and want things to be done just so and those who are modern and take a more casual approach to things that are sure to give the traditionalists heartburn if not done their way. But the greatest source of joy for me in the entire book was the special MIL-DIL relationship that Chauhan gives us in the form of Pooja and Sona Kedia. She breaks the stereotype of the monster mother-in-law or the devilish daughter-in-law and instead shows her readers how this relationship can be very open, friendly and mutually nurturing if done the right way.
I do have one grouse with the book though. There’s too casual a use of a particular Hindi c-word that seems to pepper the vocabulary of everyone in Habba galli and seemed grating after a while.
It seems that the ACP Bhavani novels are soon going to appear on Netflix, and I absolutely can’t wait to watch them. Recommended when you are looking for an easy-breezy read.
“Because listening is Bhavani’s superpower. He exudes sympathetic attentiveness from the spread of his chunky shoulders to the tips of his interlaced fingers, and his kind, attentive eyes never look away from you till you want them to, in which case they swivel away obligingly and only come back when you are composed enough to handle eye-contact again.”The Fast and the Dead by Anuja Chauhan
Have you read this easy-breezy read? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!