First of all, it's rare to find a crime thriller written in India.
Second of all, it's even rarer to find a well written, well researched crime thriller.
Usha Narayanan's The Madras Mangler is one of those books.
The story revolves around five young women studying in Chennai's SS Padmaja college. Kat, Minx, Moti, Deepika and Lolita, five young, ambitious ladies who want to make something of their lives- something other than getting married, raring babies and serving their husbands like slaves as expected by the patriarchal society around them.
Usha's novel is loaded with subtext. She shows how patriarchy affects the girls' personal lives and their relations with their own families and boyfriends, it also depicts the misogyny and the violence against women rampant on the college campus and in Chennai as a city. It's like everywhere they go they're surrounded by miscreants who have the most perverted fantasies about women and violence against women is almost a ritual. This is how a lot of women in India feel, especially those trying to break the stranglehold of patriarchy and the glass ceiling as well. From the nerds who go around campus, openly making sexist comments and harassing girl students, to the misogynist Dean who espouses archaic attitudes towards women, to the cop who is as regressive and unconcerned with gender equity and other issues- we've seen and faced them all.
What I like is how the author has etched the women protagonists as not damsels in distress, but women who fight on their own level first and overcome difficulties, and even help each other out in time of need. Only and only when matters get a little out of hand do they take the adorable male lead Vir Pradyumna's help.
Vir himself is a lovable character, relying more on brains than brawn to get his work done; and he doesn't hit on the woman he likes, or make her feel low or other such tactics, to get her to go out with him. I like how he genuinely respects and helps the girls, like teaching them self-defence and asking them to be careful when they find the bodies in the Adyar river.
The serial killings, in themselves, bring out the patriarchy in sharp contrast: How such incidences are a way for regressive fringe groups to make sexist statements, and how women are advised to stay indoors and blamed if harmed, rather than being taught to be careful and stick up for themselves.
The background of murder and mayhem fits in well with the story and makes the plot delicious and the twists refreshing. The research in criminology has been done well, and Vir espouses the sharp criminologist with a human side very well. The suspense is nail-biting, the tension sustained till the end.
The climax is satisfying and great, an 'Aha' moment for a thriller buff like me.
Usha writes very well, her prose alive and taut, her language brilliant and her grammar perfect- this I suppose owing to her advanced degrees and proficiency in Literature and creative writing, and her solid background in advertising and teaching literature as well.
Usha writes like a pro, and if I may make a personal statement here: Her writing is of a very high level and this reflects in the fact that she has gone on to get published subsequently with Harlequin and Penguin Random House.
TMM is Usha's debut but she has outshined a lot of other English writers in India with this novel. She's a very intelligent and evocative writer as well, cutting through the crap to make an outstanding, articulate statement about gender inequity and societal apathy towards both women and people who're different.
I wish to read another nail-biting thriller from Usha, and wish her all the best for her future works across all genres she treads.
Go read The Madras Mangler if you want a good read with tea and fritters on a rainy evening. And a succor from the crass pop fiction being churned out as 'literature' today.
You can get a copy of this amazing novel here: The Madras Mangler