A Perfect Murder

Mitra Phukan feels that it takes a murder to know the life of a small town as she reads through Anu Kumar’s new book

If Hillary Clinton believes that “It Takes a Village”, for Singapore based author Anu Kumar, “It Takes a Murder”. As titles for books, both are intriguing, and indeed, they posit the entire volume very succinctly in both cases.

Anu Kumar’s book deals with a murder. But that is, we learn almost immediately, just a lynchpin that holds the many layers, the many incidents and characters of Brooks Town together. For it takes a murder to know the life of a small town. This one, set in the late eighties and early nineties, and even earlier, of the twentieth century, is caught in the cusp between an unchanging past and a present that is suddenly ensnared in a vortex of change. The “small, never moving town” becomes part of the larger events that take place across the country. The broad sweep of history is reflected in this town, and the lives of its inhabitants. Many important events that shook the nation at various times in its history, are reflected here. The secession of Kashmir, the Indo-Pakistan war, the Babri Masjid destruction, to name a few, are all important events for this little town, as well, through its characters.

It is also a story of love. A story, in fact, of many love stories, most of which are unrequited. How the characters deal, variously, with this, is shown with a delicacy of touch that makes us aware that the author is also a poet.   It is as though the first murder is a stone thrown into a pool of water that is seemingly calm on the surface. But as the ripples grow wider, we realize that beneath the surface there is a seething turmoil of emotions, motivations, repressions and desires.

Among the many charms of this book is the way the little town is described. It, too, seems to be caught in a cusp, between a hill station proper and a “plains town”. There is mist and mountain and winding roads, but there are also trains that whistle past the town, and rivers that are reminiscent of a town in the plains. This placing of the town is brought to life with a host of delicate details.

Of course, since this is a murder mystery, there are clues strewn all over the book. But gradually, as the reader is drawn into the story, through the broad arcs of the narrative, these clues seem to be very much a part of the tale. It comes as a bit of a shock, in fact, when the murder is “solved” (though “solve” is not really the word to use here) and we realize that the clues were there all along. All the complex relationships of a small town, and the many motivations that keep relationships alive through years, decades of living in the same place, are shown up as being of great importance for the characters. Charlotte Hyde’s lifetime of secrets are brought in as delicately and evocatively as descriptions of her beauty.

This is not a typical murder mystery though. Its pace is leisurely, with many meanderings and swoops into the past and future, which draw in ever-newer characters. And yet the fact of the murder, and its subsequent and related disappearances, never recedes from the reader’s consciousness. In some ways, it is like an Inspector Morse story, though it is less steeped in books, and more in characters. Like the Inspector Morse stories, “It Takes a Murder”, too, is dense and layered, and also has an all pervasive sense of place.  Not a quick read, but certainly a very rewarding one. It is only after the reader has finished the book that she realizes that the story is about the “perfect murder”.

A novel device that has been used here is the way the narrative uses the first person as well as the omniscient voice. Both blend in seamlessly, without disturbing the flow of the story at all.    This is a difficult feat to pull off, but Anu Kumar does it with aplomb. It helps immensely that her language is so lyrical, full of suggestivity. Some sentences resonate with feeling: “I, who had once seen him without that anger around him could never think of anything else…” Descriptions of relationships, of loves lost are perceptive and insightful.

All in all, a fine book, well worth reading.

“It Takes a Murder” by Anu Kumar, published 2012. By Hachette India Rs 350.

Excerpts from an email chat with Anu Kumar regarding the book and its writing:

How long did it take you to write this book? The way the story winds back and forth, and sweeps ahead and then loops back again must have required a great deal of planning to get right.

A first draft was over in less than a year but it took time after that.   I revised it several times, at least eight, building on the many stories and finally having them coalescing into one, sort of.   The play with time happened because of that, changing the structure of the book, making the stories flow as one.

How do you draw your characters? Do you see them around you, or are they totally from the imagination, or a bit of both?

It is a bit of both.  I knew of people like those who appear in the book.  There was an Iranian refugee whose daughters ran a beauty parlour for instance.  But I had to flesh out the outlines.

You were a student of history. Is this what makes the “historical” events play such an important part in the book?

Yes.  A lot of what we do, what happens to us is in part shaped by our past, not just our own but the past transmitted in families.  It happens especially for those who have moved, or maybe more so.

The two entities, that of a murder mystery and a description of small town life merge beautifully in the book. Was it difficult to do this?

Yes and no.  Somehow it seemed to me later that these characters could live only in a place like Brooks Town.  That made the place unique and them too in a way.  Both, the town and its people, drew from each other.  The canvas was thus smaller and you could find your way about in it.

Anything else you would like the reader to know?

Well yes.  This book has been described variously – as crime fiction, thriller and suspense and also literary.   I also heard it described as a ‘cross-genre’ book.  I really am not sure of what this all means but am hoping the reader will pick it up and decide for herself and not go for labels too easily.

You write for children as well…tell us something about it.

There is in fact more history in the books I do for younger readers, somehow.   It just happened by accident that I came back to a subject I loved – history, after some years of drifting around in the corporate world.  I sort of hope to look at the marginal, more forgotten, hidden aspects of history,  hope to answer the ‘what ifs’  as well, and in that way,  perhaps my readers might find that history is a subject full of exciting never-ending possibilities.

There are so many stories in general that remain to be written.  And am surprised they haven’t been.  Sometimes am not sure where the crisis is – in the quality of readership or the risks publishers are willing to make.  And in all this, there’s a strange entity called the market no one really understands or so it seems to me.

What next?   

There is some commissioned work.  But am hoping to write a series of interlinked short stories half set in Singapore where I live now.


Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives and works in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, and a novel, "The Collector's Wife". Her most recent work is another novel, "A Monsoon of Music" published by Penguin-Zubaan in September 2011. Besides, her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her works have been translated into several languages. She is the Northeast correspondent of the Chennai-based journal of the performing arts, "Shruti" and a member of the North East Writers' Forum.