CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 20, 2004
 
     SOCIETY & THE ARTS: BOOKS
 
Murder in the Stars

An astro detective solves crimes with chutzpah, charm and horoscopes
 
THE COSMIC CLUES
By Manjiri Prabhu
Dell
Price: $6.99
Pages: 370

The detective story as a genre is, as Raymond Chandler delightfully calls, "The citadel every writer someday or the other aspires to storm." Manjiri Prabhu with her charming debut novel The Cosmic Clues has skated up those slippery walls rather well.

For a maiden venture, a maiden detective based in Pune and a goofy though efficient assistant Jatin are a perfect combination. They have a mascot too-the stray cat Nidhi with a diamond collar and which is intriguingly temperamental. Sonia Samrath of Stellar Investigations has a rather unusual gift-she has astrological skills that help her divine criminal motives and patterns. Along with murderers and charlatans, Ketu, Shukra and Rahu are equally important characters. The pretty Ms Samrath (modelled on the writer herself, I suspect), who zooms through Pune in her Maruti van, needs horoscopes of people involved in the crimescapes to bring justice to a fitting end. The Owl, an international crook who has decided Samrath will be his inamorata, casts a shadow through the harlequinade of chapters, and the mystery of his identity-is he the handsome, lovestruck anchorman Mohnish Rai or the enigmatic Varun-is adroitly suspenseful.

Prabhu's style is clear and accessible, a delightful combination of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. The book hurtles to its climax through murders, chapter after chapter. Samrath as a detective wears the mantilla of well-bred romance rather than the dark, gritty toughness of an Amelia Sachs or the troubled genius of a Clarice Starling. A sequel, Astral Alibi, which Prabhu is now working on should be well worth the wait.


AUTHORSPEAK: DINA N. MALHOTRA

Paperback Patriarch

He is the Methuselah of Indian publishing, the grand old man who has the inviolable copyright to its first stories. When 81-year-old Dina N. Malhotra, the founder of Hind Pocket Books, talks about himself, it invariably turns into a story of nation and narratives-of publishing The Economic Structure of Free India from Lahore much before the British quit the subcontinent, the journey to Bombay on the Punjab Mail, of watching refugees flood the streets of Delhi's Chandni Chowk, "of giving a break to Khushwant Singh" and scouring the desk of R.K. Narayan for his latest writings. "I don't remember what I had for breakfast today but those incidents are as vivid as if they happened yesterday," says Malhotra, who has now put together his memoirs Dare to Publish (Clarion).

It is not a thriller of the paperback sort but the meticulous account of a publisher concerned about the number of copies sold and his visits to publishing houses. It is also the tale of a boy who woke up to the smell of printing ink and the sight of his father Rajpal Malhotra, a publisher in Lahore, squinting at the proofs he brought from the press. The six-year-old, who saw his father killed for publishing a book on the Prophet, returned to the press as a 21-year-old. Not because he thought he would publish or perish. As a lecturer in Srinagar with an everyday dream of a house with a garden and a library, Malhotra found the prices of the books prohibitive. If he couldn't buy the books, he would publish them-cheap.

In 1958 free India witnessed its first revolution-the paperback revolution. Malhotra's Hind Pocket Books brought out the Re 1 books-an eclectic collection that included Gitanjali, Dewan-e-Ghalib and the Hindi translation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Malhotra approached hawkers, booksellers at railway stations and even hairdressers. "Thirty thousand copies of the books were sold in three months," he says. He also started the Book Club, which at the best of times posted 40,000 volumes a month.

Now eight years into retirement, with a garden at his house in Delhi, a library stocked with books, more being churned out by Full Circle, the publishing house started by his son, and his granddaughter ready to enter the family business, Malhotra is contented. As he says, he has come a full circle.
-By Charmy Harikrishnan