A 12-year-old girl disappears from school one day, with every clue pointing to a vicious child trafficking ring. Enter Inspector Gowda.
Inspector Gowda is back. And how! In charge of a police outpost in Bengaluru rural district, Borei Gowda is a man with a good, if somewhat rusty, heart.
When his maid’s 12-year-old daughter disappears from school one day, and is last spotted in the city’s bustling Shivaji Nagar market area, he leaves no stone unturned to track the girl down. His colleague Santosh, who barely survived an assault on his life in the first book in the series, Cut Like Wound (2012), is put in charge of the investigation under the assumption that it will be a soft case. And thus ease him back into the job. But all clues point in a terrifying direction — a vicious child trafficking ring operating in the city. Gowda and Santosh are also aided by a new entrant, the go-getting constable Ratna, as they trawl through the city’s underbelly in a virtual race against the clock — will they be able to rescue the girl before she is sold off to modern-day slave traders and meet a destiny worse than death?
The thriller elements and social commentary aside, Anita Nair’s Chain of Custody (which hits bookshops this month) is also a story about Gowda himself, a 50-something man with a messy private life. His wife, a doctor, has shifted to Hassan because she doesn’t like life in the undeveloped housing colony on Bengaluru’s northern outskirts, and their teenage son has left with her to study there. Gowda suspects the boy is taking drugs, but doesn’t know how to bring the subject up without further damaging the brittle family ties. He immerses himself in his job. But police work is not just about going out and catching crooks. There are all kinds of office politics, caste politics and other considerations that make Gowda’s life unnecessarily complicated. Besides, living unwillingly separated from his family, Gowda has become intimate with the gorgeous 40-something socialite Urmila, who is engaged in child welfare.
Apart from being a fast-paced and engaging read with a deeply felt social agenda Chain of Custody gives us gut-wrenching peeks into Gowda’s thoughts: “This was a city where dog ate dog, rat devoured rat, and everyone would get ahead if they dismissed their conscience. Towers of Babel were rising everywhere and men came from all parts of the country to build these edifices that paid homage to human greed.
What comes to your mind when you think of Bengaluru? Pensioners’ paradise, (mostly) great weather, endless traffic jams, city of pubs, best second-hand bookshops? How about child-trafficking hub?
Chain Of Custody, Anita Nair’s second Inspector Gowda novel, delves into this unsavoury, mostly unknown side of Bengaluru—a world where politicians, policemen, real-estate dealers and cucumber-sellers form a web to trap children, from places as far apart as Mumbai and Bangladesh, and use and abuse their bodies to make money. It is not an easy topic to read about, and the reader is relieved to have Borei Gowda’s sharp, unsentimental eyes to look at this world. The cynical policeman and his beloved Royal Enfield Bullet made their debut in Cut Like Wound (2012). Though the second book reaches us four years later, the action occurs just seven months after the fateful night at the end of Cut Like Wound.
Gowda’s affair with his college sweetheart Urmila is continuing, much to his surprise, and the enthusiasm he had rediscovered for his work hasn’t disappeared yet. His deputy, Santosh, who was hanging on to life by a thread at the end of the last book, has rejoined duty, though he is still recovering mentally and physically. A self-assured, intelligent woman, an assistant sub-inspector, is a welcome addition to the team. And the old gang of police constables Gajendra and Byrappa, no shrinking violets even in the first book, come into their own here—witty, impulsive and sometimes wise characters that we would want to meet if we ever had a chance to visit their police station in Neelgubbi.
Neelgubbi itself, once a rural hamlet, has been taken over by the demands of urbanization and the greed of real-estate developers. And the speed at which land is gobbled up is matched only by the rate of crime in the area. “…the number of complaints that filled the station diary pages often made Gowda think that this must be the crime hub of the city. Gambling, betting, bootlegging, drug dealing, dacoity, rape, murder, burglary, prostitution, and illegal possession of fire arms… whatever happened, Neelgubbi?” That plaintive question could be Nair’s own query about Bengaluru, a city she depicts with great affection and knowledge in these books.
When Nandita, the 12-year-old daughter of Gowda’s maid, disappears, the inspector and his team work against time to find her. This is, however, not the story of one missing child—the point the book seeks to make is much bigger. Nair details the viewpoints of multiple characters—from that of Moina, a Bangladeshi girl forced to submit to multiple “customers”, to Krishna, who has no qualms about exploiting children (he is, after all, just doing what had been done to him as a boy). We are privy to the thoughts of both the oppressed and the oppressor. What this does is make these characters human—flawed, often evil, but human.
A book about child abduction and rape will necessarily be a harrowing read, and it is to Nair’s credit that while she doesn’t shy away from depicting violent scenes, they don’t seem gratuitous. The dignity that she imparts to even the most minor actors, not leaving them as mere bystanders in Gowda’s story, speaks volumes about her experience and talent as a writer. From a young boy who works in a tyre shop and longs for a can of Pepsi and a ride on a Bullet, to a haughty flower-seller who demands a rum-and-water in exchange for information, it seems natural that these people would speak and think like this.
And in the midst of all the grit and grime of unforgivable crimes is Gowda. It is not easy to make the character of an adulterer, with his tired excuses and useless guilt, seem endearing, but Nair’s Gowda is just that. A committed officer sidelined by corrupt politicians and resentful colleagues; a curmudgeon who rediscovers passion with his college sweetheart even as he tries to avoid his wife’s questions. As befits a character around whom a series is built, Gowda is the linchpin that holds this book together. His abuses, barked orders, quiet desperation, disgust for his boss, affection for his team, and the myriad thoughts that go through his mind make him a presence that is missed when he is not on the scene. Gowda is no superhero—he is a policeman who has to deal with red tape, attention-seeking bosses and creaky office furniture in between solving crimes.
As with the first book, there are no easy answers. Nair is sensitive enough to realize that there may not be a “happily ever after” for children robbed of their childhood. While it is not necessary to have read the first book, the reader may be able to appreciate Gowda’s personality better if she has met him in Cut Like Wound. There are also spoilers for the “mystery” in the first book here. The word “mystery” is in quotes because these books aren’t really whodunnits. The identity of the culprit (or rather, the ultimate culprit—Nair’s characters operate in a grey zone where there can be more than one perpetrator) is generally obvious to the reader. But that doesn’t take away from the book, because it is the course of the investigation and the lives of the people that make the reader turn the pages. Make some space, Rebus and Wallander. Our Gowda may soon be joining you.