The Mag This Week

Here’s what’s in the Books page this week:

Samhita Arni reviewed Tabish Khair’s How to Fight Islamic Terror from a Missionary Position. Sharanya Manivannan wasn’t particularly impressed by Origins of Love by Kishwar Desai. I reviewed Miss Moorthy Investigates by Ovidia Yu, which was a surprisingly fun read, and Dave Besseling’s The Liquid Refuses to Ignite, which turned out to be a damp squib.

I’m not sure whether it was Westland’s plan to make Miss Moorthy Investigates look as amateurish as it does, but if it was, it’s a good one. You can’t have even middling expectations from something that’s so wretched looking but Yu does quite a good job of mashing up Miss Marple and Mma Precious Ramotswe and plonking her, of all places, in Singapore. In contrast, there’s The Liquid Refuses to Ignite, whose blurbs raise expectations sky-high and you can read the review to see what effect that had.

Teacher’s Day

Need a book to keep you company during your commute? Something fun, juicy and easy to read as your train or bus or taxi lurches its way past the morning traffic? Ovidia Yu’s Miss Moorthy Investigates is what the literary doctor ordered for you.

The setting is Singapore in the 1970s and there’s a serial killer, known as The Strangler, on the loose. For an orderly and well-regulated city like Singapore, the idea of a man who goes around butchering women and whose murderous signature is to chop off the victims’ hands is even more shocking than it would be for a place that is more familiar with crime. Miss Moorthy Investigates opens with the murder of Evelyn Ngui, a schoolteacher and a colleague of Savitri Moorthy. It seems The Strangler’s next target may be Miss Moorthy’s flatmate Connie, but before he can lift a finger, Connie and Miss Moorthy manage to take him down — Miss Moorthy belts out “Stop in the name of Love” and Connie thumps him with a brick. However, it seems The Strangler has a copycat and the copycat is the one who killed Evelyn. When Evelyn’s friend Jek is also killed — with a screwdriver to his chest — it’s more important than ever that Miss Moorthy do amateur detectives proud and solve her first case.

If you’re a fan of the whodunit genre, chances are you’ll figure out who killed Evelyn and Jek halfway into the book. However, whether or not you do, you will want to read Miss Moorthy Investigates till the end just because of how much fun Yu has packed into her storytelling. Yu’s Miss Moorthy is quite obviously inspired by Mma Precious Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but she is no less charming because of this. Miss Moorthy treats the suspects of a murder case much like she treats her students, which makes Miss Moorthy Investigates particularly amusing, but because she’s perceptive, her adages turn out to be surprisingly apt.

Yu’s Singapore is a city in which eccentricity and adorable oddballs live in quiet harmony with the regimentation and clinical efficiency for which the city state is famous. Sprinkled throughout Miss Moorthy Investigates are delightful vignettes, like the story of the headmistress who berated Japanese soldiers for stepping on the school’s tapioca plants. Yu drops subtle but unmistakable hints at the oppressive nature of the Singaporean legal system in the 1970s — the state policy of taking punitive actions towards dyslexics and those in need of psychiatric help is fleetingly but pointedly mentioned. She also doesn’t shy of touching on the racist attitude towards Indians but doesn’t dwell on it. Miss Moorthy is too full of joie de vivre to let such narrow mindedness puncture her spirits.

While Miss Moorthy Investigates has little literary flair in its language and is largely emptied of complexity so far as the plot and characterisation are concerned, the novel is an undemanding and enjoyable read.

High Life

Hunter S. Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas back in 1971 and the novel haunts Dave Besseling’s The Liquid Refuses to Ignite. Like Thompson, Besseling is (or at least has been) a journalist.

Just as the germ of Fear and Loathing… was an article for Rolling Stone, the beginnings of The Liquid… lie in articles Besseling was commissioned to write by Rolling Stone. Like Thompson, Besseling appears to be well-versed in intoxication techniques and while Raoul Duke had his attorney, Dr Gonzo, for a travel companion, Besseling has Dr Heagney.

No wonder, then, that a blurb proclaims Besseling “a true spiritual heir to Hunter S. Thompson”. Except it takes more than a nose full of cocaine and a head full of hallucinations to channel the original Gonzo.

The Liquid… follows Besseling on his travels from Varanasi to Tokyo, Amsterdam, Prague, Kathmandu, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Paris, Manali and Kashmir before ending in Nepal. To anyone who has travelled in Asia (particularly as a backpacker), Besseling’s stops might as well have signposts that read “Druggie Trail”. This wouldn’t be a problem if The Liquid… had taken a leaf out Fear and Loathing… and presented something more substantial than the narrator’s intake of narcotics.

Particularly since the book falls into the non-fiction category, it is perhaps not unreasonable to expect some socio-cultural insight and/or reportage fromThe Liquid… Unfortunately, the only leaf Besseling seems to have taken from Thompson is marijuana. Unlike Raoul Duke, Besseling registers little more than his very personal experiences, most of which are reflective of Besseling’s state of mind and levels of sobriety.

Writing about Tokyo, for example, the aspects of Japanese society that Besseling chooses to briefly discuss are the changing attitudes towards tattoos and the culture of dating foreigners. Most of the chapter is about a thoroughly stoned Besseling club-hopping and ending up in a bathtub in a love hotel with his Japanese girlfriend.

Similarly, even though Besseling was in Thailand during the coup d’etat of 2006, the chapter recounting that trip is about the materialism of Buddhist monks and bar-hopping in Chiang Mai.

It’s one of the many examples of Besseling being, in his own words, “on the periphery of a strife I supposedly want to experience.”

In India, Besseling makes some observations but they are mostly banal, like the fact that Indians stare at foreigners. Occasionally, they are mildly amusing, like his classification of how men grab and scratch their crotches in public.

It’s easy to imagine Besseling regaling a crowd at Delhi’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club or getting numerous hits on a blog with his stories.

He’s often funny and his experiences are entertaining enough in small doses. However, 336 pages about how an unknown Canadian tourist did drugs, cemented his cynicism about Buddhism and abandoned aspirations of being an artist and turned to writing begs a number of questions. First, what does he have against

Buddhism, which is the target of Besseling’s mockery throughout The Liquid…? Is it because the religion is an easier target than, say, Hinduism and Islam?

Second, why should a reader care about Besseling’s life experiences and epiphany (particularly when the latter is anti-climactic)? Neither is Besseling charismatic enough nor are his experiences novel, which is why, along with the liquid of the title, the reader’s interest in Besseling’s travels also refuses to ignite.

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