Saturday, February 4th, 2023 16:30:18

Murder at Moonlight Cafe

Updated: November 1, 2021 6:59 pm

Obviously ‘Murder at Moonlight Café , the signature story in this fine collection of eleven stories on a very wide spectra of themes – from whodunit to Aliya , a  fashion DJs  ‘asexuality’, the angst of a herpetologist and a woman in her fifties whose kleptomaniac instincts are reserved for bodies in coffins – is the one which the author likes best , but the story which I read many times over is Kalika. It draws from  multiple stories in the Puranic folklore , but she puts it across so well for  the younger audiences of today .

To recapitulate , this is the story of  Kali’s creation in the hands of Parvati ( Gauri) to destroy  Mahisasura, the king of the demons who had almost vanquished all the Devas (gods) and was about to assert his absolute control over all the three worlds. Having vanquished them all, Kali locks Shiva in an embrace of ecstasy  which Parvati cannot   comprehend , let  alone accept. How could Shiva  choose the dark Kali over the fair Gauri ? And why did Gauri create Kali in the first instance ? Kali gives the answer  ‘ O Fair one…neither did you create me to kill Mahisasura , nor did you create me out of devotion to Shiva. You created me because of your pride. You could have defeated the asuras yourself , but you did not want blood on your  fair hands. You created me and poured all your darkness into me , so that I could carry out the massacre , and you could emerge as the shining beacon of perfection. That , my dear Gauri was your real intent.’

Smoke and Mirror is a story of three young women: Anaya , a model  who is happy because she is ‘liked’ on the social media , Pari, a young professional in mid-life personal and professional crisis  and the nineteen-year-old maid  Kamala , who blew away her worries dancing to the tik-tok. All three were obsessed with the mirror , and the smokescreen which covered the reality of their lives . The  Herpetologist is the story of a  ‘snake and frog researchers’ tryst with  the world of  ‘real men’ and their mean machinations , finally trying to settle down as a biology teacher in a high school. ‘Mariam’s Tears’ reminds you of Roal Dahl : ‘Death wasn’t kind. Life wasn’t either . But then, Mariam had the magic key -for everything  , she found could be overcome with a ready smile ,and a sense of macabre humor’. In fact, in all her stories,  the protagonist is not the conventional  knight in the shining armour – s/he struggles with  existential issues , like Yumne in ‘The Monk of Talagarh’ and Aliya in ‘The Ace of Hearts’ , a fascinating story of a woman who is fine with everything  except the need or craving for sex. ‘It Watched Me’ is  surreal for sure , and ‘The Itch’ takes you to the world of carnivore mixes, fangs , sulphur and vials .

‘The Boy Whose Hair Grew and Grew’ is obviously fantasy , but it’s the setting of the story- first in the barber shop and then  the ‘tamasha’ in the  public space for the setting of a record – and the final twist  which makes it so readable . ‘The Price of Apples’ is a touching story which also shows that the growing up years are not necessarily blissful – they too are marked with  indifference  bordering on cruelty especially  amongst young adults  living in relative deprivation. From an administrator’s perspective  , it is also a comment that  all market intervention schemes for the support price of apples have had little or no impact, and that the ICDS centres , universal  school enrolment and mid-day meals  have not impacted the lives of many children  even in relatively better administered states like Himachal.

Last, but not the least is Murder at Moonlight Café . Like  offerings from Agatha Christie, it has a murder, suspects, clues, possibilities, witnesses , cops  and the in this case , the wife of a cop  who is there by happenstance  to solve the mystery !

Ishavasyam took a sabbatical to complete this book, and she has certainly invested her time well. Each story transports the reader to  a different world , and it is her fine attention to detail that makes one marvel at the length to which she has ‘immersed’ herself in each of the stories . The  many insights which a reader  gets from  reading  these stories is commendable . While reading the Herpetologist, one is actually transported to the  deep jungles Western Ghats , the world of these creatures from the wild and the impact of  climate change on almost everything around us.  From here to the setting of the Moonlight café  and the picturesque  home stay. village ( both in Himachal ) to the memorial service in a Goan church  and the world of ‘junkies’ in The Itch  , and the university setting in  It watched me – one can only marvel at how much time and research has gone into each of the characters. Likewise , in my favourite story Kalika , one can actually visualize the palace of Parvati , ‘an  abode , located in the realm of ethers- that magical plane between the upper reaches of the azure sky, and the dark resplendent belt of the stars . The crystal palace stood on a solid silver foundation, flanked by two golden pathways in a garden dotted with gurgling fountains… the soft fragrance of  sandalwood intermingling with the smoke of man-made offerings  wafted into the palatial premises  from earth far  below …

Take another sabbatical Isha, and give us the grand novel with all the magical realism ! You can do it, and you have a band of dedicated readers now who will follow the trajectory of your writings in times to come . All the best , and to you, dear reader, please do pick up this book published by Xpress publishing and very reasonably priced at Rs 210  a copy – real value for money !


By Sanjeev Chopra

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