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Book review: A Death in Shonagachchi by Rijula Das

Murder and murk in the City of Joy

 With such a straightforward title, what the reader expects is a Shonagachchi crime,  and that is indeed what the reader gets. To unravel the backstory to the deed, we are taken to South Asia`s largest red-light district, with all its  murk, heartbreak, violence,  and unexpected pockets of comfort.

The protagonist Lalee is a sex worker who has managed to survive by repressing all memories of her  past and adopting a carapace of total indifference under which simmers much anger. Lalee has a babu, an unlikely admirer and regular visitor  by the name of Trilokeshwar `Tilu` Shau, a man who `possessed all the charm of a leftover roti,` and it is with him that Das chooses to start her story.

The first chapter is laugh-out-loud funny, with a less-than-charitable description of Tilu, the reveal that he is a writer of penny erotica for a dubious publishing concern as well as a Kolkata enthusiast, totally in thrall to the city`s past. So deceptively witty  is the beginning that the reader is lulled into thinking this is going to be a quirky account of a murder in Shonagachchi.

But,  no. The story then dives into a darker place involving the usual suspects: a the merciless brothel owner Shefali Madam, a faux-Russian hooker called Sonia, some sweet young sex workers, an evil Maharaj and his acolytes, cops like Samsher Singh,  Balok Ghosh and Inspector Bose  who are reluctant to take up this particularly gruesome murder case for the usual dismal reason: sex workers are low on the money-making chain. In Samsher`s words, “It`s not for nothing that they put them in one corner, in these floating towns where  they can remain among their own folk and not be a part of normal life.“ Within a few chapters though, Das blows the cop`s premise apart, showing us how sex workers can be found across Kolkata`s tony areas, hotels and parties, blurring the lines between `respectable` and `disreputable` all too easily.

Das employs a measured pace; there is a restraint to her prose through which the pain of most of the characters  (pimp and cop included) peep through. And if the ending is pretty much what the reader expected, if Tilu shows up in a rather pat manner for his rescue act, if the women characters are better drawn than the men, that`s alright,  because somewhere along the way, the reader has  begun rooting for Lalee and Co.

Not quite murder mystery, not quite crime novel,  more a pointillist story  about a sex worker`s life, A Death in Shonagachchi is a skilled debut work.

 A Death in Shonagachchi By Rijula Das. Picador India. Rs 599. Pages 300

This ran in The Hindu Sunday Magazine of 02 Jan 2022.

A Death in ShonagachchiKolkata storyPicador IndiaRijula Dassex workers

Sheila Kumar • January 2, 2022

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