Robin Agnew

Harini NagendraMeet new mystery writer Harini Nagendra and her mathematically minded sleuth Kaveri Murthy

Harini Nagendra’s first novel, The Bangalore Detectives Club, is set in India in the 1920s in a moment when it is on the cusp of independence. Her main character Kaveri Murthy is a new bride, just out of school and living with her husband for the first time. Kaveri's passions include mathematics and Sherlock Holmes, two interests that along with her penchant for discovering clues, lead her to some amateur sleuthing in Nagendra's lovely and atmospheric debut novel.

While the book's country club murder is a traditional set up, Nagendra’s novel has a fresh and wide-ranging story, full of history, Indian culture, rich settings, and colorful characters. Nagendra skillfully brings all to vivid life. The Bangalore Detectives Club is a joyful book in many ways and a wonderful first novel. Readers will no doubt be as delighted to discover Kaveri and as I was—and I was equally delighted at the chance to discuss Nagendra's new series with the author herself.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Setting your book in 1921 is such an interesting time, with India on the brink of Independence, but not quite there. Can you talk about your choice a bit?

Harini Nagendra: The struggle for India’s freedom was at different stages in different parts of India in the 1920s. Mysore State, where The Bangalore Detectives Club is based, was one of British India’s few Princely States, ruled by the Maharaja of Mysore. In many ways, life was easier for the Indian population in Bangalore as compared to Madras, Bombay, or Calcutta, where oppression was stronger and calls for freedom were correspondingly louder. But there was a strong non-cooperation movement gathering force in Bangalore, with Mahatma Gandhi visiting the city in August 1920—and over 40,000 people turning up for a rally.

And this was of course the classic Golden Age era, post WWI, when people spoke of modernity and progress, suffragettes demanded women’s rights to vote (yes, even in India), and women started businesses, opened schools, and launched magazines. Alongside these positive changes was the persistence of prejudice, poverty, and colonial brutality. In short, it was a complex and a fascinating time, full of opportunities and setbacks. I loved what my research uncovered, and enjoyed writing about the times.

I loved many things about Kaveri, but there was one thing I was curious about: Why did you make her a mathematician?

Kaveri parachuted into my imagination one day in 2007 and demanded that I write a book about her. I can make her do some things, but for the most part she is a pretty determined character of her own, so she decides quite a bit on her own. And she loved mathematics, so that was that!

But if I had to give you an answer about where her love for maths came from, I could hazard a guess that it came from my own deep-rooted maths phobia. It’s only later, thanks in part to meeting my husband who loves physics and maths, that I started to get over my phobia and appreciate their aesthetic beauty. My daughter is in the ninth grade, and unlike me, she’s adores mathematics—in large part because the time she spends with her father working out maths problems. The whole experience got me thinking about why young women have STEM phobia, and how unfair it is that we as a society permit these biases to continue today.

In Bangalore of the 1920s, girls who had completed middle school were often unable to continue on to high school because they had not studied English, Mathematics and Science. But they couldn’t, because these subjects were not widely offered! Since Kaveri is such an iconoclast, it made perfect sense to make her a nascent mathematician pushing back against societal obstacles. Kaveri rejects this hypothesis of authorial control and insists that she loves maths purely of her own volition though!

The Bangalore Detectives Club coverKaveri and Ramu’s marriage is an interesting one and I assume perhaps not so typical of the time. Can you talk about creating these two characters and the kind of couple they would be?

As was quite typical of those times, Kaveri and Ramu had an arranged marriage. But once married, they have tried to forge a new kind of relationship that goes beyond the then-standard idea of the wife as domestic goddess and husband as intellectual and provider. They married when Kaveri was only 16, though even that was somewhat of a late marriage for those times.

Kaveri only joins Ramu as his wife three years later, at the start of the book, when she turned 19 and moves to his house in Bangalore. When they stumble across a crime scene, even though they’ve been married for three years, they’re very much a newly-wed couple who are just getting to know each other. Kaveri is feisty, independent, but also loves her husband and wants his support. Ramu is first bemused by his wife, then admiring of her, fast becoming one of her strongest supporters.

Through their domestic encounters, cooking, cleaning, and swapping home duties—and in scenes where Ramu teaches Kaveri how to drive, or takes her to an Anglo-Indian store to get her first swimming costume made—I explore the way in they start to appreciate each other as individuals, and create a strong partnership.

You obviously love classic detective novels—your characters even refer to Sherlock Holmes—and it’s evident in your story structure. Can you talk about this influence?

I grew up on a steady diet of classic detective novels, starting with the Enid Blyton Five Find-Outers and Famous Five series, moving on to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, and then Sherlock Holmes, along with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot, and so many others. That’s in large part what inspired me to turn to writing one of my own, of course. The influence is probably subliminal, more than planned—and therefore all pervasive.

I love the way in which these classic novels bring the setting alive, use elements of basic human psychology and inductive reasoning to find out whodunit rather than relying on technology, and also illuminate broader societal issues such as sexism (which the Nancy Drew series so brilliantly overturned) or intellectual snobbery (Holmes being a perfect example since readers love him but also cringe at how contemptuous he is of Watson at times).

I wanted to make sure The Bangalore Detectives Club had elements of many of these: the atmospheric setting, where the weather and elements of nature have a major role to play; the exploitation of human psychology and of gossipy, curious neighbors by the detective; the contrast between the rich and poor; and finally, the satisfactory resolution where ultimately, justice is achieved and wrongs are amended, even if not completely set right. I hope readers who love these classic detective novels as much as I do will find they connect to The Bangalore Detectives Club!

Kaveri’s mother-in-law is conveniently off canvas for much of the story, but she will obviously be a factor. Will her influence be felt in future books?

Yes, absolutely. Kaveri’s mother-in-law Bhargavi plays a much greater role in subsequent books in the series. The tension between the two women is strong, and pervades Kaveri’s life through The Bangalore Detectives Club—even when Bhargavi is away. Kaveri’s mother-in-law has trenchant views (such as her ideas that too much education is bad for a woman). She is also very attached to Ramu, her only son, and is worried that as he gets closer to his wife, he might distance himself from her. Will Kaveri be able to successfully navigate her thorny relationship with Bhargavi in future books? We’ll have to see.

The tension between British colonists and Indians was depicted with much nuance. There’s so much to it and you illustrate it really well through character. I’m thinking about the character of British Mrs. Roberts, contrasted with some of the Indian women who move in the same circles.

Mrs. Roberts, the wife of the main British doctor who heads the hospital where Ramu works, is typical of many British expatriates of those times, imperious, commanding, and opinionated. She can be very warm towards Indian women of whom she approves; for instance, she absolutely loves the fact that Kaveri drives a car and enthusiastically discusses fashion and dress design with her. But she is also rather obnoxious to the people who work for her such as her maids and gardeners, blithely renaming them with familiar British names if she finds their names difficult to pronounce or castigating them for minor offences. (This was, unfortunately, a fairly common British custom of the times). She also has a tendency to pass excessively patronizing comments on Indian culture and customs which Kaveri finds grating, but she has to bite her tongue.

I also liked the depiction of some of the “outer” classes: cowherds, prostitutes, etc. What kind of research did you do for this part of the narrative and the book?

Thank you! Kaveri and Ramu, and many of their neighbors and friends (Uma aunty, Mrs. Iyengar, Mrs. Reddy, Indira, Inspector Ismail) are from relatively privileged backgrounds, unlikely to experience hunger, abuse, or daily insecurity. I wanted to portray the other side of Bangalore as well, a city filled with people pushed to the margins: the cowherds, prostitutes, urchins, house maids, and so many others. I also wanted to make sure these people were an integral part of the story and played a substantive role in reaching the final resolution, not just acting as props or background.

In my day job, I am an ecologist and university professor who studies the ecological history of Bangalore, amongst other things. This is a short way of saying I am very fortunate to have 16 years of archival data on Bangalore that includes old maps, diaries, gazettes, annual reports, ledgers, newspapers, photographs and many other types of information. For the other aspects, I drew on stories told by my mother and older relatives and interviews with people like grazers in their seventies and eighties, whose stories of their childhood are not very different from what life would have been like in the 1920s for them. There are other scenes where I draw on personal memory, such as the one where I describe a woman making cow dung patties by throwing balls of dung onto a large boulder near Ulsoor Lake. These are sights I have seen myself, about 40 years ago. They have now disappeared from the city, but are still a part of my memory.

Kaveri uses the science of fingerprinting in her first case. How widely was it used in the 1920s?

The idea of using fingerprints to identify people is very old, described in a Chinese document on how to deal with a crime scene in the 3rd century BC. People in India used hand and fingerprints to sign off on important documents for centuries as well. But the modern practice of using fingerprints to identify criminals originated in colonial India, initiated by Sir Henry Edward in Calcutta, and developed into a science by two of his Indian subordinates, Khan Bahadur Azizul Haque and Rai Bahadur Hemchandra Bose. By 1895, the city of Madras had a fingerprint bureau of its own and fingerprints began to be used to identify criminals across British India by 1897. By the 1920s it was widely used across the region. Kaveri, with her keen mind for science, was a natural to pick up something like a bloody fingerprint and understand what it could be used for—not just to convict a suspected criminal, but also to clear someone unjustly suspected.

I loved the characters of Uma aunty and Inspector Ismail. Will they return in future books?

I’m so glad to hear that! Uma aunty was very much a part of the book as I initially envisaged. But I did not plan for Inspector Ismail to be in the book. He walked in one day, and took over a scene, booting out an incompetent (and somewhat boring) younger policeman whom I was writing about. After that, he just stayed. I adore them both too. They are key members of The Bangalore Detectives Club and will certainly be a part of the future books in the series. I would love for readers to get to know a little more about them, their families and personal histories.

Finally, what book for you was a transformational read, one that led you to a writing life?

I can’t remember the first great book I read, but I always had a book in my hands. I truly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to read a good story, and to make them up myself. I wrote little books and short stories for my father, who traveled a lot, and begged my older sister to make up stories for me. So it’s hard to identify one transformational moment or read. The earliest authors I remember being engrossed by are Enid Blyton (the Wishing Chair adventures), Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows), A A Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and Lewis Carroll (much more than Alice, it’s Through the Looking Glass I truly loved). I always wanted to tell stories like they did, transporting people to a different world.

Harini Nagendra is a professor of ecology at Azim Premji University, and is internationally recognized for her scholarship and speaking on issues of nature and sustainability. The Bangalore Detectives Club is her first crime fiction novel. Her nonfiction books include Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, and two books coauthored with Seema Mundoli—So Many Leaves, and Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, which received the 2020 Publishing Next Awards for best English nonfiction book in India and was featured on the 2021 Green Literature Festival’s honor list. Harini lives in Bangalore with her family, in a home filled with maps. She loves trees, mysteries, and traditional recipes.