A long time ago, in a sub-continent far far away, the British East India Company ruled over the tiny kingdom of Tamil Nadu. The British were invaders and tax collectors. They murdered the old king, Muthu Vadugantha at the Kalayar Kovil temple, leading his wife, Queen Velu Nachi to take up arms against the evil empire. A struggle that lasted for well over a decade.
Eventually, Nachi passed on rulership to her daughter and the Maruthu Brother chieftains. Together with the northerner, Veerapandiya Kattaboman, they waged a brave war against the greedy British. They lost.
Kattaboman was the general in charge, and there was a price on his head for killing a British Commander and not paying his taxes. After losing the war he fled to the jungles of Pudukottai, only to be later betrayed by a trusted source. The British hanged him good and well.
His legend persists in Tamil Nadu (now a state in India) to this day. They say the treasure of Kattaboman is still buried, waiting to be revealed. It could be anywhere. Maybe even in the village of Aayakudi where several residents were recently murdered. Indra Soundar Rajan faithfully documents their story for us in The Aayakudi Murders.
Ghosts or Criminals?
“Do you believe in ghosts? Demons?
“What’s this about, sir?” he asked.
“Give me an answer first.”
“Good, we’re on the same page then.”
Rajendran is a famous investigative journalist. He was sent to the village of Aayakudi after his editor received a letter from one of the local girls, Chinna Pechi. Apparently something suspicious is going on and she fears either ghosts or criminal activity. In her view, Rajendran’s magazine is also a forum for justice so she politely requested that the editor do whatever he can. Such a request from a village girl could obviously not be ignored so the editor sent the very single Rajendran to investigate.
Aayakudi has many secrets. The first thing Rajendran discovered upon arrival is that Chinna Pechi is eight years old, illiterate, and sometimes speaks with the voice of an adult man. Apparently the person who wrote the letter was her teacher, Deenadayalan. He felt that a request from a female admirer was more likely to work so he forged one. Also, there’s been a murder. And somehow this all ties into Kattaboman’s treasure. Good thing Rajendran’s an investigative journalist!
A Treasure of a Book
“Okay, but where is the treasure now?”
I’m not going to reveal that. That would be spoiling, and I’ve already given away one too many spoilers. Instead, I’ll tell you what I thought about the book.
The Aayakudi Murders was a very fun deep dive into Tamil culture. Weddings are set by the local astrologer, a Hindu goddess needs to be placated, chickens are sacrificed, and old ladies pound betel nuts. Aayakudi is ruled over by a local headman, and of course there’s lots of gossip (okay, that one’s not unique to India), and way too many Tamili words.
My biggest challenge with the book was the words that were transliterated, rather than translated. Words such as “josiyar” (astrologer), “pavadai” (type of skirt) and “sandhosham” (happiness) give a very authentic feel to the book. However, it was only half-way through that I discovered the glossary at the end. I blame my digital copy for not having a table of contents. Anyway, this made the first part of the book much more challenging than it needed to be, which was a shame because it’s really a fun book.
Tamil Pulp is Fun
Pulp writing is a very popular genre in Tamil culture, and you really get the feel of it in this story. All the characters play a stereotypical Indian role, and they play their stereotypes well, and with a smile. The skeptical, but open-minded, journalist, the respected teacher, the superstitious village headman, and the honorable police detective. They’re all there, all very traditional as is customary, and most of them are concealing secrets.
I also felt as though the novel was laughing a bit at the detective genre. It was non-stop twists. Each time I thought the mystery had been solved, there was another mysterious reveal that required Rajendran to continue investigating, which meant that I had to continue reading, even as I rolled my eyes, and was occasionally horrified.
This book, while fun, also had its fair share of “problems” from a Western perspective. Police brutality is a totally acceptable investigation tactic, and child-marriages are a parent’s dream. If an author were to write about these as normative practices in Israel, they would be rightfully crucified. However, because this was a foreign culture, and also a pulp novel (so maybe this is satire?), I rolled with it, and let the characters’ perspective guide me rather than overriding it with my own. And you know what? It actually worked for me. All-in-all, I got to enjoy a very immersive experience into Tamil culture that more than paid off.
The Omer today is splendour in courage. This book actually gives us a nice taste of both. The splendour is the wealth of Tamil culture that is offered to the readers. The courage is the willingness to pursue a dangerous story, despite the very real risk of murder most foul. It also worked for me personally by offering me a reward (fun book, foreign culture) with risk (leaving my comfort zone), which usually requires a small amount of courage. It doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, it’s more than worth it.
About the Author and Translator
Indra Soundar Rajan, born in 1958, has been one of the best-selling Tamil popular novelists for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of novels and short stories, some of which have been published in English translation in The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. He is also well-known for his television screenplays, such as the hit megaserials Marmadesam, Sivamayam, and Rudraveena. He lives in Madurai.
Nirmal (translator) works in construction and runs a data management startup. He has previously translated stories for The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol 3. He lives in Chennai with his wife and four dogs.