The Mahabharata is probably the greatest book that has ever been written. Vast in its scope, breathtaking in its complexity, sweeping in its array of characters, flawless in its attention to details, and ambiguous in its moral lessons, it is truly an epic. In fact, it is quite possible to take away small portion of its storylines and characters and weave complex plotlines around them. Arnab Ray (or Greatbong as he is better known) does the same in ‘The Mahabharata Murders’, creating enigmatic persona, terse interactions and a fascinating murder mystery, all revolving around the storylines and characters of Mahabharata.
‘The Mahabharat Murders’ is a serial killer mystery, but in effect is much more than that. Set in Kolkata as a cat and mouse game unravels between two investigating officers and a mysterious sociopath, it transcends its genre to act as an effective commentary on the characters and the society they live in.
It is told from the point of view of a thirty five year old Muslim woman. While the author himself is neither Muslim nor a woman, he brings characteristic finesse to the character, incorporating the many obstacles and insinuations that a working, single woman has to face in modern society which is still in many ways as parochial in its treatment of women as it used to be in the times the Mahabharata was written. In fact, in many ways, Ruksana Ahmed, the protagonist, is reminiscent of Draupadi. Strong –willed, intelligent, and ambitious, yet constrained by the social norms and patriarchy, like Draupadi, she has multiple men in her life, many of whom have treated her little better than a pitiful object of desire, but she manages to have her revenge, and survive longer than most of her tormentors.
Unlike a typical book of this genre, ‘The Mahabharata Murders’ is heavy in dialogues, written mostly in the form of a screenplay. The characters are mostly Bengalis, and like the typical Bengali, they like to talk, often with a dry wit and dripping sarcasm. To the author’s credit, it never gets verbose, and the story progresses smoothly without ever being held up. In fact, he adroitly allows the characters play off each other, manufacturing tension from their interactions. These conversation between the characters, often ominous and with a sense of foreboding, form some of the best moments of the book.
In case the book is made into a movie, there will be inevitable comparisons with ‘Baishey Shrabon’, the Prosenjit starrer. However, a more apt comparison perhaps shall be ‘Shojarur Kanta’, another serial killer Byomkesh novel written by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay. Like ‘Shojarur Kanta’, this novel is also more about the story behind the crime, rather than finding out the perpetrator of the crime. In fact, it may be argued ‘Shojarur Kanta’ is probably among the very few Byomkesh novels, where a well written story from a different genre (a romantic drama in this case) is disguised in the form of a whodunit.
If there is one grouse against ‘The Mahabharata Murders’, it is the climax. The denouement of a mystery novel is typically the toughest part, as the author not only has to bring together the loose ends of the story and present a coherent, satisfactory closure, he also has to explain the plausibility of the same to the reader, while retaining an element of surprise. That explanation in itself can become an awkward tool in the storytelling process, something which has been acknowledged by none other than Satyajit Ray himself and even by the author in this novel. Greatbong does make a honest attempt to provide a satisfactory climax to the story; the ending does come as a bit of a shock and perhaps it is the best one can come up with, but it still leaves a few gaping holes in the plot line.
If there is any moral lesson in Mahabharata, it is that end justifies the means. If you, however, find the journey more satisfying than the end it gets you to, you will find ‘The Mahabharata Murders’ one of the best mystery novels this year, and not just by an Indian author.
P.S. – I finished the book in one sitting, of around six hours. It is that engrossing.