Quick Lit | Chanpreet Khurana

Bemba or bust

It’s hard not to be charmed by Gulabi, the village belle turned super spy. The heroine of Jane De Suza’s The Spy Who Lost Her Head comes to Mumbai in search of that most desirable among grooms, a Bemba (engineer-MBA). What ensues is a tale of so many misunderstandings and wrong turns that a protagonist of lesser mettle would easily have lost her head. Luckily for Gulabi, alias Pink Rose, she is in possession of an extra head—that of journalist Sunder Raj, who tragically loses that part of his anatomy when he gets uncomfortably close to exposing crime and corruption in high places.

The 22-year-old, around 5ft-tall “bubble in blinding yellow", who can crack open coconuts with a single swipe, sets aside her ambition to bed and wed, not necessarily in that order, her “so completely correct", “so properly perfect" Bemba landlord to become a “zero to hero spy" out of the goodness of her heart, and also because the Bemba refuses to be wooed.

Gulabi, we learn, does not give up without a fight. When plying the Bemba with fried brinjals and turning the full glare of her feminine charms on him yields no result, she seeks the help of the supernatural. Her flatmate “Tanya the Tipsy Tenant", of spiky hair and spindly legs, takes Gulabi to a doorknob salesman-cum-seer so she can arm herself with the objects of ensnarement. And that’s where the trouble starts. At a busy Mumbai vegetable market, Gulabi bags a severed head instead of the perfect pumpkin the seer had recommended she buys, is chased by goons on a motorbike, and outruns them to return home with the prized packet.

Alliteration and puns litter the narrative to poke gentle fun at the “fish-faced" Gulabi, that picture of “dough-rolling domesticity" upon whose shoulders falls the grave responsibility of becoming a “deep, dark, devious detective". Gulabi then turns to the movies for inspiration. She scrubs her armpits raw in the shower, because that’s when the villain nabs the unwitting heroine in the movies. She sets a trap worthy of the Home Alone films to catch the culprits—complete with a bucketful of chilli balanced on the main door, and a trail of oil leading to a tub containing boiling water and an immersion rod.

De Suza’s book in part seems like a nod to whodunnits, from the long line of Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes’ adventures to detective films from the Marlon Brando-starrer Maltese Falcon to Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, and in part to the kind of comedy one associates with Rowan Atkinson of Black Adder and Mr Bean fame.

There’s a generous sprinkling of situational humour, much of it arising out of Gulabi’s unique understanding of what she calls the Queen’s English and her take on polite behaviour. “Nothing is what it means," Gulabi complains. What is a girl to do in a big city if she can’t even depend on her friends to swing off a seventh-floor window ledge to take on two goons who’ve threatened to swipe her head, as well as Sunder Raj’s?

A series of lost chances (for Gulabi) and mischances (for her foes) lead our super spy to crack the case. You cannot but develop a sort of respect for her abilities to land smack in the thick of action, to face the music head-on (pun intended), and to remain unfazed in most situations—usually of her own making—that leave others around her incredulous and/or livid.