Book Review: Just the Facts, Madamji
Originally published in the year 2002 by Indialog Publications, Just the Facts, Madamji is authoress Sharmila Kantha’s debut work of fiction that introduces us to her very authentic detective, Mr. Ramji. Now, I won’t for a second believe that the Indian publishing industry back then was anything close to like what it is nowadays; especially in fiction—especially in the mystery genre. So given the era that it was published in, I have to admit it that this is one admirable read, though not without its fair share of flaws.
Bored by the monotony of his secured yet insipid job at the bank and craving to want some adventure in life, Ramji, convinced that he is qualified enough to be a Private Investigator, places an ad in the Yellow Pages. His experience in the field: years of voracious reading of crime fiction and thrillers novels! However, to his greater surprise, Ramji is summoned in by one Mrs. Kumar who then decides to hire him to locate a will left by her aunt-in-law, an old, wealthy widow who has just been murdered in her Delhi villa. Driven by the motive to make some extra bugs and pick up some vital experience along the way, Ramji takes a week off from his bank job and sets off on his scooter under the scorching Delhi sun to locate an old woman’s missing will. His first visit to the crime scene results in a staggering discovery that gets Ramji all the more excited.
‘Hell, I thought, my first case, a real, fantastic whodunit—and all the client cared about was a miserable will,’ concludes Ramji, and here starts his unofficial investigation of the old woman’s murder.
Armed with a license to interview (read interrogate) the dead woman’s relatives, Ramji dives deeper into the mystery and in the process comes across the various inhabitants of the capital city—ranging from his dull, middle-class colleagues to the urbane relatives of the dead woman to their tattered servants. Also keeping him company is Ramji’s sensuous yet cultured Punjabi girlfriend and a mathematics-loving Delhi policeman named Riaz Khan, who pops up on multiple occasions to help out our protagonist. Midway through the novel, the affair takes a serious turn with bodies starting to pile up and a threat for life looming large upon Ramji himself. In spite of all that, Ramji gets himself embroiled deeper and deeper into the mystery. He decides to inch forward with his investigation, inevitably inviting some serious trouble along the way. Will Ramji manage to solve the murder mystery? And more importantly, will he find the missing will (it is what is going to get him paid, after all)? These are a couple of questions that form the tail-end of this story.
So more than a decade on since it was first taken in print, this detective novel has made its way back into the market again, thanks to a modern day makeover by Rupa Publications, who have been consistently good with their novels for years now.
Unlike most of the mystery novels, which are often dark and veiled, Just the Facts, Madamji is a light hearted, humorous take on the urban Delhi life. The authoress uses her observational skills, which are exceptional by the way, to describe an assortment of lifestyles of people living in the city. Penned in a hilarious style that takes pot at the cotemporary Indians, this is a novel that explores various aspects of various people belonging to various classes of the so-called society. Full of clever and sarcastically amusing remarks, the book sees to it that the readers are entertained. Another delightful touch to the book lies in its usage of old Hindi film songs to describe the diverse moods or thoughts of our protagonist. Every time a song comes up, one can smirk.
That said, it is worth notifying here that the novel does carry it’s realm of seriousness with a murder mystery at the heart of it. The writing style is pretty much laid back and the first person narrative describes the action from Ramji’s point of view, which perfectly balances between what the readers should know and what they shouldn’t; at what time should things be revealed and when they should be concealed. The narrative language is effortless and has an urbane touch, but the authoress does a swell job at penning the dialogues in an outright realistic manner—so much so that you can almost smell the Delhi/Punjabi accent on it. Kudos for that!
I wrote at the start, that this book introduces us to a very authentic detective, and I absolutely meant it. Not many can turn this fact down either, for who can boast of a private eye who is a mid-level bank clerk by the day and a fearless, risk-taking, adventure-seeking sleuth by the night? In Ramji, readers will find a protagonist who will instantly connect with them. He is witty with his middle class reflections of life in Delhi and sarcastic with the slogging of his bank job, while there is a prevailing willingness shown by him to encounter excitement in his detective job. All of these impressions flesh Ramji’s character brilliantly and are comical to say the least. A few traits of his which I found particularly interesting were the sing-a-song moments in his investigations and the trademark Ramji’s Guiding Principles of Life; the principles that will surely make you nod in agreement. Apart from Ramji, we also have an ensemble cast of supporting and semi-important characters who complete the story.
The only real case that I can have against this novel is the fact that the mystery at times takes the back seat while the characters are solely used to observe and describe things that have got nothing to do with the plot. Predictably, it slows down the pace of the book and prompts the reader to sift in and out of the book. I felt that a bit more dedication towards the plot and a tighter mystery could have worked wonders here. As it turned out, the action and the intensity fell short of my initial reckoning.
Perhaps we’ll have another Ramji mystery where the stakes will be higher, the plot a bit tighter, and the action a lot more pulsating.
This kind of writing and this particular protagonist certainly deserve to have another go at the readers. So please, bring it on!
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