Now a novel writer, former journalist and television anchor Udayan Mukherjee’s second novel, A Death in the Himalayas, is a mesmerizing mystery which flexes its arms by juggling local and racial politics of an idyllic locale called, Birtola. Mukherjee’s writing avoids flowery descriptions and informs with the right amount of jest and moves on. He has taken quite the right turn in his short yet evidently prolific output since his first novel, Dark Circles came out a year ago.
Here he introduces Neville Wadia, a former detective from Bombay who has retired to the hills with his wife Shehnaz. Birtola is a quaint village in the hills, which makes it an attraction to people from outside, including those beyond the borders of India. Clare Watson, a Britain-born environmentalist, writer and activist has made Birtola her home and began to communicate on issues of social concern and liberal values with the locals as a way of life, stepping as you would expect in India, on a fair number of toes on the way. After Watson is found dead in the woods one morning, Wadia, though unwillingly but naturally has to lead the investigation the police is seemingly untrained to handle – this being the hills and the death being that of an expat. With a lot of suspects and none with tight alibis, the story gets excruciatingly gripping with each unfold.
Most impressive is Mukherjee’s understanding of life in the hills. The writer has himself been living in the mountains for some time, and it makes for pleasant reading when you see he can glean the subtext. Undoubtedly, one of the best things that I really liked was its setting - a rural village where violence is rare made the murder seem far more dreadful and shocking than it would in an urban setting.
Why would anyone kill a well-meaning foreigner like Clare Watson in a quiet neighbourhood in the foothills of the Himalayas? A Death in the Himalayas works well as a murder mystery, its final reveal a tasty twist on the minor details Mukherjee serves along the way. More than that the novel is quietly informative and wise about what it wants the reader to ponder over, learn and eventually, question. Fiction, especially literature can often be evasive about the simplest status quos that exist in the world but are likely to be missed. Mukherjee has evidently, learned to look at them. Only he can tell if it took him to step away from the city to do so, but it does make for light, breezy and intriguing reading nonetheless.