Writers, diasporic as well as those native to the Indian subcontinent, have used the Partition of India to capture the pain and the destruction it caused to millions of families. In Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House, Partition constitutes the backdrop of a detective novel with Inspector Persis Wadia as the lead. It is not just the time and the place that are unusual; this fictional detective is India’s first woman police officer (some two decades before one was actually appointed).
The story is brilliant. It is 31 December 1949: India is a free country and all set to adopt itsConstitution in less than a month. Wadia receives a phone call in her police station: British diplomat James Herriot has been murdered in his room and his trousers are missing! Her investigation takes her in different directions: Bombay’s socialite circle that includes the last of the British elite, different episodes of Indian freedom struggle, and the Partition riots, or — to be precise—specific crimes among them.
Wadia is a very relatable, real character. The only woman among male colleagues and bosses who tell her that she does not deserve to be among them, she is plagued with doubt. Khan describes her style of investigation with an intimacy that makes the novel charming:
Flushing, she cursed herself for not having considered this. The idea of appearing incompetent bothered her far more than being murdered or assaulted in the line of duty, a gruesome eventuality that Aunt Nussie predicted on a daily basis.
Such fear of failure does not plague the male detectives.
With this novel, Khan inaugurates a series. Wadia’s personal story—widowed father, annoying aunt, men around her—makes her an interesting character.
The front door, as ever, was unlocked. Her father had always reasoned that if anyone was minded enough to steal books, either they were in dire need of them but could not afford them – in which case they were welcome to them – or, if they happened to be confused thieves, then it was better to have well-read thieves roaming the city than illiterate ones.
There is plenty the readers would like to discover about her in her future cases.
Khan keeps the narrative simple. He does not want to rush the readers towards the murderer; there is no sense of urgency to the plot. Wadia’s perspective of looking at details keep the readers engaged.
The sight or smell of death had never bothered her, but there was something inherently mawkish about an autopsy room that set her teeth on edge. If the notion of souls be true, it was here that they must be most at a loss. Tied and yet no longer tied to their erstwhile earthly forms. Like being thrown out of one’s home, clattering around the gates, hoping to be let back in, before gradually realizing there was nothing for it but to turn and face the darkness.
Midnight at Malabar House will appeal to many kinds of readers: Bombay lovers, those interested in modern Indian history, and anyone who appreciates a strong female lead.
Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.