Bollywood Tragedy

Hospitality is hard work. The hours are long. The managers can be difficult. You live on tips and leftovers. You deal with complaining nitpicky customers by day and drunken unpredictable customers by night. 

Now imagine having to investigate a murder on top of all that. 

Kamil Rahman is living in somewhat reduced circumstances above the Tandoori Knights restaurant in Brick Lane. Prior to this Kamil was a budding homicide detective from a respected police family in Kolkata, but he has been forced to flee India after screwing up his first big murder case. His parents are ashamed of him, the Home Office is trying to deport him, and, it appears, a mysterious hitman wants him dead. 

Ajay Chowdhury is good at writing about hospitality work – the drudgery and stress of it, and also the camaraderie and laughter that seems to exist beside the drudgery. The Waiter opens with a big gig for the Tandoori Knights staff – they are catering a private party for wealthy businessman Rakesh Sharma. At this point you just have to relax and enjoy Chowdhury’s observations. Not long in London, Kamil expects Billionaire’s Row to be a ‘futuristic nirvana’, but finds instead ‘a deserted, shabby road with half the houses in total disrepair, hidden behind forbidding black hoardings and padlocked iron gates. It looked as though the billionaires had fled the country en masse after a people’s revolution.’ The venue itself is ‘a large double-fronted Georgian house, in the centre of which an overexcited architect had plonked a portico. At the entrance sprung four tall white columns topped by a triangular pediment displaying sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses disporting themselves in various states of undress. Underneath was a large plaque with the words ‘Sharma Manor’. It was an unique Anglo-Greco-Bolly-weirdo style of architecture.’

Rakesh Sharma is a success story who has fought his way out of the Basanti slums. But he’s dead by the end of this night, and the cops arrest his beautiful young wife. Kamil has his doubts, though, and to restore some measure of his own pride he starts to run his own investigation between restaurant shifts. 

What follows is a workable detective story. Kamil tries to unravel the mystery as best he can with no official standing as an investigator. At the same time he’s remembering his first big shot in Kolkata, the murder of Bollywood star Asif Khan, and how that case fell apart. We’ve been here before of course, but again it’s Chowdhury’s gift of observation that makes the story work. He describes two cultures, London and Kolkata, sending up both worlds and shining a light on the places where they intersect. Kamil was a rising star in Kolkata but finds himself balked at every turn by a dysfunctional police bureaucracy. A key piece of evidence disappears into the tomb of the malkhana, and to find it, Kamil enters this dismal underlayer of the police station:

I peered at the paan stains and damp patches on the bare concrete walls of the malkhana. It was sweltering here, the slowly rotating fan above doing little more than distribute the humidity around the room. The police headquarters became grungier and more dilapidated the further down you came; the executive offices at the top, pristine, wood panelled and air conditioned; the holding cells at the very bottom in the sub-sub-basement suffocating, filthy, stinking and damp. 

And that is not the worst of it – Kamil remembers a morgue that had ‘Bodies lying everywhere in the refrigerated room, some stacked on top of each other, sometime more than one on a stretcher. Some looked as if they hadn’t been touched in months. When I’d joined the homicide division, Abba had drummed into me, ‘First rule of police work, get a good PM doctor. The bad ones miss things all the time and you will be on a monkey chase.”

Chowdhury also evokes a changing London. Tandoori Knights owner Saibal complains that ‘Brick Lane is different – all young people and tourists now, no regulars anymore. I have to worry about things like Trip Advisor reviews-sheviews and Instant-gram – complete nonsense. People going click-click at their plates all night long. Tweeting and twatting. Good food, good service is not enough. Now the food has to be beautiful so people can take pictures and put on the Google. How do you make a chapati look nice?’ 

The dialogue is funny, idiosyncratic and real – indeed The Waiter is best when Chowdhury just lets his characters talk. Saibal’s daughter Anjoli, irreverent and quick witted, is the perfect assistant and foil for the gloomy and rule-bound Kamil. 

This is Ajay Chowdhury’s first crime novel and hopefully there will be more Kamil Rahman books to come, for it’s a pleasure to spend time in his world.

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