A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge, Ambai

In Agatha Christie’s They Do It with Mirrors, the shrewd Jane Marple tells her friend:

Human nature, dear, is very much the same everywhere. It is more difficult to observe it closely in a city, that is all.

They Do It with Mirrors was not the finest work of the great dame of crime fiction and not perhaps the greatest case for Miss Marple. Yet, Miss Marple’s observation about the difficulty of analyzing human nature in a city is quite close to the truth.

For instance, Mumbai, the city where Ambai has based her Sudha Gupta Investigates series is noisy as any busy city in the world with too many things happening at once and multitudes of people pushed together in confined spaces; each person looking out for themselves. Who will notice the simply-dressed old woman sitting by herself on the overbridge of one of the busiest station? For the tired city-dweller eyes, she is just a part of the regular scene of hawkers and beggars lining the innumerable cramped foot-over-bridges all over the city.

Not for Sudha Gupta, though. The cinnamon tea-loving detective has a canny ability to pick out the unusual even in chaos. Thus, in the hustle and bustle of a local train station, she notices the old woman and strikes up a conversation with her. The old lady sitting on the overbridge becomes her client in the story, A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge. In As Day Darkens, a seemingly insignificant photograph hanging on a wall becomes the clue to unravelling the dark hidden secrets of a family.

Published by Juggernaut, A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge is a compilation of three detective stories: A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge, The Paperboat Maker, and As the Day Darkens. Written originally in Tamil, the stories have been translated by Gita Subramaniam. Each story is available as individual novellas and also as a compilation in ebook format in the Juggernaut app. The publishing house plans to release the print version of the collection at the end of this year.

A creation of C.S.Lakshmi, who is also known by her pen-name Ambai, Sudha Gupta is the new private sleuth in the Indian crime fiction scene. It would not be right to slot the three stories of A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge under the genre of crime fiction. Ambai’s short detective stories do not involve gritty sordid hard-core crime. At least, not the stories that have been published until now, except As the Day Darken. The cases that Sudha Gupta takes up are as simple as they come: tail a prospective groom, shadow a cheating spouse, and investigate the background of a dubious business partner. In these simple cases, Ambai interweaves social issues that have become so familiar to us that we tend to brush them aside without any guilt. These are not stories that you have not heard before. Perhaps you have read about similar cases in the city edition of your daily newspaper: a woman in her old age entangled in a conflict of interest with her family, or a family left broken by domestic and sexual abuse.

With her terse use of language, Ambai imbues Sudha Gupta with realism. Unlike other fictional detectives, the private detective with a Bambaiyya edge would be real as any one of us. She would be that woman you see every day in the ladies compartment of a Mumbai local train. She hops from one local train to another and walks through the by-lanes of suburban Mumbai solving cases. She has a family: a husband (who has mostly remained a shadowy figure till now) and a teenage daughter. Like any working woman, she has to make space within her familial obligations to do her sleuthing work. In this, she is assisted by her hired cook Chellamma and her efficient secretary Stella.

Ambai is known to be a feminist writer. The lives of women, the spaces they inhabit and the interaction among women are central themes of her stories. The Sudha Gupta Investigates series is not an exception to this. Men have secondary roles to play and as in the case of Sudha Gupta’s husband Naren, they have an almost nonexistence presence in the narrative. The only male character given substantial significance is Inspector Govind Shelke, who occasionally seeks the help of the private detective to solve cases. He is Sudha Gupta’s rakhi brother and often at the receiving end of her cynical criticism of the police department.

Whereas most of the detectives of the fictional world prefer to work alone with their “tiny grey cells”, Sudha Gupta has a wide network of people who help, assist and advise her.  She is not someone every detective fiction fan would fall for instantly. She is not dramatic like Hercule Poirot. She does not indulge in incisive monologues like Sherlock Holmes. She has been invariably compared with Jane Marple since both share the common qualities of shrewdness and digging out crucial information from the most innocuous conversation. However, this is just the beginning for the Mumbai-based private detective. As more stories are added to the Sudha Gupta Investigates series, I hope the highly perceptive and resourceful private detective comes into her own and sheds off the epithet of desi Miss Marple.

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