This is the fourth in the Malabar House series with Inspector Persis Wadia, the first female police officer in India. Of course, she is hidden away in the backwaters of police stations, Malabar House, but has a knack of being asked to investigate high profile cases, possibly to try and bring her down but also because she is good, if a little naive, at her job.
Set in the 1950s, post partition, the lesser god is James Whitby, the son of a ruthless businessman, who is accused of murdering a lawyer. He is found guilty and due to hang but the complication is that he is a White English man, and the lawyer is Indian. So, one of the big questions in the book is whether an English man can receive justice in post-colonial India and it is a close call.
The search for the truth takes Persis and her apprentice, Seema, from Bombay to Calcutta on the trail of the motivations for the killing. Complicating matters is what appears to be a star of David sent to the lawyer not long before he was killed. This means moving amongst the many religious groups in India, Jews being one of them. However, what symbols might mean to westerners is not necessarily what they mean to Indians and this drives one of the wrong turns that Persis takes on her search.
In India, symbols endured. From the calcified remains of Christian saints, to the soaring architecture of Muslim conquerors, to innumerable Hindu pilgrimage sites dotted around the place, to the rumours that Jesus had once walked the mountains of Kashmir – presumably in something more than a sackcloth robe – religion had left behind stories that twisted and flapped through the populace, attaching themselves to susceptible minds.p91
Interspersed throughout the story are first person accounts of James Whitby’s life, I think to show us how his upbringing and life as the son of a man who believes that Indians are subordinate to an Englishman and that they are lazy and need beating in order to get anything done, have shaped him. Slowly, they detail his change in thinking from going along with his father’s beliefs to determining his own.
My identity is not up for debate. I am a white man and I am an Indian. A strange bird, but this is my forest and if I am to fly, then it shall be here.p352
At a couple of crucial moments Persis and Seema are saved by rather unbelievable events – a tiger kills one person and a crocodile eats another. Whether these are meant to be representatives of the Gods, invoked by the Gods or just rather convenient ways of allowing Persis to investigate another day, I don’t know. Whichever way, they didn’t quite work.
As the epigraph says, when asked whether you are a man or a demon, the answer is that you are a human being. Good and evil reside in all of us, it’s just which one wins the day.