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Bus rides are almost as important to Swaminathan’s story as Mumbai. Photo: Ashesh Shah
Bus rides are almost as important to Swaminathan’s story as Mumbai. Photo: Ashesh Shah

Profile | Kalpana Swaminathan’s Bombay

The surgeon-author, whose new book in the Lalli detective series is just out, on the city she knows best and how she uses it in her writing

On the opening page of Kalpana Swaminathan’s last book, the history of a geological monument in Mumbai co-written with Ishrat Syed, the authors recall the moment that sparked the work. Swaminathan is reading a book about Mexico during a long city bus ride when her neighbour, looking over her shoulder, asks her why she reads about other places.

“Do you know all about where you live?"

For two decades now, Mumbai, the place where Swaminathan lives, has provided subject, setting and character for much of her writing, including the new installation this month of her popular Lalli detective series.

The writing has been both plentiful and diverse. Since 1993, the paediatric surgeon has published 14 books and co-authored eight more in a unique collaboration with Syed, whom she met as a medical student and who now lives partly in the US, under the pen-name Kalpish Ratna. Between them, they have explored most genres—and written innumerable magazine articles—but have a special penchant for histories and mysteries.

Last year, she and Syed published Once Upon a Hill, a non-fiction book about an unusual monolith called Gilbert Hill in Mumbai’s western suburb of Andheri, told through the memories of local residents, the imagined voices of colonial cartographers and records of the region’s ancient past. In 2009, her book of short stories, Venus Crossing: Twelve Stories of Transit, won the Vodafone Crossword Fiction Award. In 2010, she and Syed wrote The Quarantine Papers, the first in a series of medical mysteries, set partly during the 1993 Mumbai riots and partly in 1896, the year the plague swept the city.

The Secret Gardener: Penguin, 256 pages, Rs 299.
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The Secret Gardener: Penguin, 256 pages, Rs 299.

The Lalli books are perhaps the most well-known of a new crop of Indian detective fiction. They also form Mumbai’s first real detective series since H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote books—of which Swaminathan, unusually, is not a fan. “They have an antique view of Indians that I find painful, as an Indian, to read," she says, though she found Keating himself, whom she met before she wrote her first detective novel, to be “a very interesting man".

What marks the Lalli mysteries out from the crowd are not the plots so much as the writing: The stories are told with an easy, fluent wit and leavened by an underlying melancholy. Gruesome forensic detail is eschewed (Swaminathan has seen too many Mumbai corpses to want to describe them), as is the cynicism of noir, which she dislikes. Whereas the writing in some of Swaminathan’s other books can sometimes feel overwrought, the Lalli stories are more tightly constructed, with lovely asides on food—marmalade, affogato—and acerbic observations. In the fourth Lalli book, I Never Knew It Was You, a character “sheds exclamations like dandruff" and students in a coaching class wear “the glaze of dedication that only exorbitant fees can provide". One suspect is discussed thus: “Good family. Educated. Respectable. God-fearing.’ ‘Always the worst,’ Dr Q said."

In person, Swaminathan is small and spare with a sharp, skittering intelligence that seems unlikely to suffer fools. Her conversation is a lot like her books—humorous, idiosyncratic, sometimes vehement. She doesn’t like the word prolific, for instance, which is occasionally used for her. “That terrible word," she exclaims, over a cold coffee on a hot day near her Bandra clinic. It sounds like the “ovaries are overproducing, coming out with triplets. Quadruplets! Quintuplets! Sextuplets!"

The idea of Lalli first came to her “fully formed", she says, on a bus commute almost 20 years ago (bus rides are almost as important to Swaminathan’s story as Mumbai). A detective fiction fan, she admires Sherlock Holmes, George Simeon’s Inspector Maigret and Ruth Rendell’s works. But she found her own creation more closely resembled some of the 60-year-old women she knew. “At that time, I was much younger," she says (she is now 56), “and women in their 60s seemed to me to be very perceptive. Strong, passionate, and generous. They were much more free, in some ways, and that gave them a certain reach into people."

In those early years, Swaminathan often wrote on her bus and train commutes. Even now, though she travels by car and mostly writes at her desk at home, she seeks out a public place when she’s stuck on a page. “It is an environment that produces a certain voice... a shift in perception," she says. “In a crowd, you’re anonymous. But the anonymity is not just because others don’t see you, but because you don’t see yourself."

She doesn’t believe that one needs, in Virginia Woolf’s famous words, “a room of one’s own" to write. And she has little patience for questions about the rituals of writing or the conditions necessary to produce it. “I used to be irritated by people I knew who said, ‘I can write only with black ink, on this kind of paper, with that kind of pen’," she says, “Finally what is it that you’ve written? Nothing is there on the paper, bloody."

Another bus ride from her student years in the early 1970s sticks in her mind for different reasons. The bus was travelling from Grant Road train station, where she’d just gotten off, to Sophia College in Breach Candy. It was raining heavily, the roads were muddy and the vehicles were going nowhere. Soon, the passengers and driver opened up their lunch dabbas (boxes) and started passing them around. There was a camaraderie that you rarely see in the city now, she says.

“We saw (that spirit) in the 2005 floods, but Bombay was always like that before. We related with each other on the trains and buses person to person, without caring about language or religion. As medical students (in central Mumbai), we used to walk out on the streets at 2am to sample the food during Ramzan...We felt the city was there, waiting for you."

Multiculturalism makes Mumbai an ideal setting for her kind of detective story, she says. “The walls between people, cultures are more permeable here, or they used to be." And detective fiction “demands that moment where we shed our derived identities, and deal with people as people, not as units of culture or ethnic groups." While the main characters in the Lalli stories come from different communities, they are not symbols or caricatures. The mysteries’ main concern is the puzzle but the characters rarely feel stock.

The Lalli stories are set in present-day Mumbai but they have the quietness of a previous era. Partly, “that’s the Bombay I know", says Swaminathan. And partly, it’s the fact that Lalli lives in a housing society in Vile Parle, a leafy, old-world neighbourhood still occupied largely by Maharashtrians. Swaminathan, who partly grew up there, loves the area and still visits its market for her weekly groceries.

But that neighbourhood too is changing. In one Lalli book, Swaminathan likens the area’s redevelopment, including its new “glass-skinned avenues", to “a woman with a long-term commitment to plastic surgery".

That description could as easily apply to the rest of the city.The frenzy of raze and rebuild that has taken over Mumbai in the past decade has been accompanied by an increased interest in the city’s history and heritage—a veritable “industry", as Swaminathan puts it. But Syed’s and her concern with the past dates back to their medical student days.

“The textbooks on cholera would say,‘200 died in London, 5,000 died in New York’ and so on. But nowhere would it mention that 23 million people died in India at the same time. When we found that fact out, it made everything else seem irrelevant," she says. “It changed us as doctors. We had to rethink the history of infectious diseases in Bombay. We started asking ourselves: What happened before here? Not there. Here."

Eventually, that question led to the duo’s first work of history, the 2009 book, Uncertain Life And Sure Death: Medicine And Mahamaari in Maritime Mumbai, about the diseases brought to the island city by ship in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“Our writing always starts out as a question," says Swaminathan. Their quest for the history of Gilbert Hill, too, was helped along by a poser from Syed’s daughter: Why does it look like that? “All of us have these questions, and they’re very exciting because they’re so mad."

Right now, she and Syed are asking themselves many questions at the same time. One is about the genesis of pao, the popular Mumbai bread. The answer may have to do with a 15th century surgeon in Europe. Perhaps pao will be the subject of their next book? A cross-continental history? A historical mystery?

“Questions can take a long time to answer," Swaminathan says, “And you don’t have to go to places to chase them. Sometimes, you can chase a question over a cup of coffee."

The Secret Gardener is available in book stores.

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