Arts Illustrated

May 11, 2020

The Imperfect Layout to the Imperfect Mystery

Jane De Suza’s ‘The Spy Who Lost Her Head’ doesn’t feature a protagonist with superhuman skills of deduction, nor a plot that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Here, quirks and imperfections are pushed into the spotlight

Poonam Ganglani

When I first reached out to Jane De Suza for some insights into her debut novel The Spy Who Lost Her Head, she asked me, curiously, ‘What about the book caught the attention of a magazine on art?’

For starters, there’s the topsy-turvy world on the cover, with flipped ‘S’s and ‘P’s in the title, and the bizarre image of a flashy female detective with a box in the place of her head. At the beginning of the novel, our heroine is mysteriously missing. And when she confides in us about her predicament, dealing with unsuitable suitors in the village of Gayab where she’s from, she does it in her own colourful version of the ‘Queen’s English’:

They is getting for me one made-in-heaven proposal after another. You see, my Papaji is Lord. He is Lord of many lands. He is having lots money and he is buying anything he wants. He is buying husbands for me, like other mans is buying onions. At bargain price. But I am shake my head at all. ‘This one is playing with his toes’, ‘that one is dig his nose’, ‘that one is spit when he is talk’, ‘and that one is duck-walk!’

Unlike other detective stories I’ve read, this one didn’t feature a protagonist with superhuman skills of deduction, nor a plot that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Quite refreshingly, quirks and imperfections were pushed into the spotlight. Clearly, an original experience of the crime novel was in store.

Newly arrived in Mumbai with fourteen suitcases in tow, Gulabi is determined to find herself a ‘Bemba’ in the big city (it is meaning he is to be Engineer MBA—B.E.M.B.A). Instead, she finds herself in the accidental possession of a head – an actual dead human head that reeks of a foul murder and a shady web of lies. Declaring herself a Super Spy, Gulabi decides to get to the bottom of the mystery, but does it in her own style – decked up in dark glasses and a slick sari, and armed with a jar of chilli powder. A hilarious unraveling of the murder mystery ensues as Gulabi skitters from one wrong conclusion and fiasco to another, but finally digs up the truth – quite literally, in this case.

the spy who last her head
Jane De Suza, The Spy Who Lost Her Head. Published 2013 by HarperCollins Publishers India. ISBN: 978-9350296059.

Along the way is truckloads of drama. There are fake suicide attempts and burnt brinjal fry as Gulabi pursues her landlord, whom she has identified as a suitable Bemba. There are pumpkin-and-head swaps and high-octane taxi chases as the baddies chase Gulabi along Mumbai’s busy streets. There are secret ice cream tubs and midnight forays into dark alleys, when Gulabi rescues her ditzy room-mate from her kidnappers. There’s also a stake-out that ends in the acquisition of potato buns but no new clues. A dodgy seer, a fortune-telling parrot, a rifle-wielding Papaji and a Minister Clean are among the other characters that feature in Gulabi’s escapades, each loonier than the next.

All of the action is delivered to us through the lens of a narrator, quirky and unconventional in their own right. For De Suza’s narrator, it isn’t enough to tell the story from behind the typical third-person curtain. They are instead given to making wry observations, amplifying filmy stereotypes and putting things in comical perspective, sometimes an accomplice to Gulabi and at other times a playful adversary. Here, for instance, the narrator paints an amusing picture of Gulabi at a stake-out outside the home of a suspect:

She knows that detectives hide behind trees while they stake out apartments. But there is no tree in sight, just dusty plants that are too narrow to hide her well-rounded personality. She needs something big and wide and – she sidles up to a pregnant cow, the only thing on the street worth hiding behind.

I am curious about many things, but most of all about the leading lady herself. A blip in more ways than one, there’s an endearing quality about Gulabi, an admirable determination that keeps you cheering her on from start to finish, despite her obvious flaws and questionable choices. ‘Gulabi was born by accident,’ De Suza tells me over our e-mail conversation. ‘I was stirring up a devious crime story for my debut novel but was bored with the formula lantern-jawed detective. What if the crime-solver was just as normal and fun and batty as you and me (me especially excelling in embarrassing errors)? In response, Gulabi cracked her egg and emerged, loud-mouthed and loudly-dressed, well-meaning but terribly politically incorrect; an Indian village girl with native smarts and oodles of attitude.’

What I perhaps enjoyed most about the novel is De Suza’s style of humour, irreverent and unexpected, yet sharply observational at the same time. I ask the author, how does one take ordinary people and spaces, and transform them into a humourous, polychromatic experience for readers? What qualities must a writer possess to be able to do this effectively? ‘A writer is an eavesdropper into other people’s conversations, a Peeping Tom into their homes and a hacker into their secret lives,’ De Suza shares. ‘We are shameless about this, probing what makes someone tick and another not tock.’ De Suza also says that she always thought humour was in her DNA, something she’d inherited from her dad. ‘To break this idyll, I was told later by a psychiatrist, that my humour was merely a defence mechanism that I use to cope with the world, to possibly ward off hurt and to make sense of it later. Either way, it works for me in my writing. Being funny is my way of making a serious point.’

I like to think of The Spy Who Lost Her Head as a clever squiggle in the world of crime fiction, teasing and thwarting readers’ expectations in many different ways. I bring De Suza back to our first conversation, curious about her non-formulaic choices, her deliberate play with characters, language and storytelling. ‘I am uselessly anti-routine, the only helpful bit of this being that I have many more ill-fitting edges in my life, or observe these in others, which makes good fodder for my books,’ she tells me. ‘Imperfections are what keep humans from being robots, with apologies to those who get it all right.’


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