THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT by Tarquin Hall

25 04 2013

Vish Puri coverTarquin Hall and The Case of the Missing Servant have been floating around on the edge of my awareness for a couple of years. Somehow, though, it never happened. Then finally, hey presto – what a lovely surprise!

But let’s begin with a typical example of the book – and the author – in action (and modern Delhi in action!) to get a feel of the book, the author and the place. Not to mention the protagonist, one Vish Puri, “India’s most private investigator”.

Here he is off to meet a contact at the Golden Greens Gold course, of which Puri was not a member although he would have liked to be […] Not for the sake of playing (secretly he couldn’t stand the game – the ball was always ending up in those bloody ponds), but for making contacts among India’s new money, the BPO (Business Process Outsourcing)-cum-MNC (Multi-National Corporation) crowd. […] In Delhi, all big deals were now being done on the putting greens. Playing golf had become as vital a skill for an Indian detective as picking a lock. In the past few years, he had had to invest in private lessons, a set of Titleist clubs and appropriate apparel, including Argyll socks.

His chauffeur, who rejoices in the name of Handbrake, needs to ask the way.

Soon after turning off the NOIDA expressway, Handbrake spotted a Vespa moped with a Domino’s box on the back and pulled up next to it at a red light.

‘Brother, where is Galden Geens Galfing?’ he shouted in Hindi to the delivery boy over the sound of a noisy, diesel-belching Bedford truck.

His question was met with an abrupt upward motion of the hand and a questioning squint of the eyes.

‘Galden Geens Galfing, Galden Geens Galfing,’ repeated Handbrake.

The delivery boy’s puzzlement suddenly gave way to comprehension: ‘Aaah! Golden greens Galf Carse!’

Ji!’

‘Sectorrr forty-tooo!’

‘Brother! Where is forty-toooo sectorrr?’

‘Near Tulip High School.’

‘Where is Tulip High School?’

‘Near Om Garden!’

‘Brother, where is Om Garden?’

The delivery boy scowled and shouted in an amalgam of English and Hindi: ‘Past Eros Cinema, sectorrr ninteen! Turn right at traffic light to BPO Phase three! Enter farty-too through backside!’

I don’t usually quote so much, but I love this. Suddenly I miss India and Delhi.

Rinku, the contact Puri is to meet, is a childhood friend who had followed his father into the building business and, during the boom of the past ten years, made a fortune putting up low-cost multi-storey apartment blocks in Gurgaon and Dwarka.

Few industries are as dirty as the Delhi construction business and Rinku had broken every rule and then some. There was hardly a politician in north India he had not done a shady deal with; not a District Collector or senior police-wallah to whom he hadn’t passed a plastic bag full of cash.

At home in Punjabi Bagh where he still lived in his father’s house with his mother, wife and four children, Rinku was the devoted father and larger than life character who gave generously to the community, intervened in disputes and held the biggest Diwali party in the neighbourhood. But he also owned a secret second home, bought in his son’s name, a ten-acre ‘farmhouse’ in Mehrauli. It was here that he entertained politicians and bureaucrats with gori prostitutes.

Oh, yes. And the case, in this book?

A wealthy lawyer in Jaipur stands accused of murdering a young woman who worked as a maid in his family home. That is to say she worked for his wife (a prize bitch) and not for him. Because this lawyer has been crusading against corruption among the police and judiciary he is unpopular, to say the least, in many quarters. It transpires that there is actually no evidence whatever against him (the girl simply disappeared) but this will not save him. Only her reappearance can do that.

Vish Puri is charged with bringing the reappearance about. But how? All they know of her is her first name – Mary – and that, as the lawyer’s wife, Mrs Kasliwal, puts it, she is a “Bihari-type”.

When Puri asks her to elaborate, she tells him ‘So many servants these days are coming from Bihar and other such backward places. Naturally I assumed she was from there, also, being so dark.’

‘She was very dark, is it?’

‘Like kohl, Mr Puri,’ she said with disdain. ‘Like kohl.’

Wonderful. And after reading it you are left with a picture of modern Delhi comparable to the Victorian London conjured up by reading Sherlock Holmes.

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