Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, Agent Starling–these names instantly come to us when asked about female detectives in literature. A little more head-scratching and we might come up with names like Lisbeth Salander, Bertha Cool or Sharon McCone.
But we feel a serious dearth of names when it comes to female detectives in Indian literature. Don’t be disappointed though. The ‘desi’ Miss Marple or Nancy Drew is around us, we just need to sharpen our observation skills to find them.
So, here are some remarkable characters, which are not simply the indigenous versions of their counterparts, but more. These crime-solving ladies are in their own league.
Kalpana Swaminathan’s police force retiree sexagenarian Lalli first appeared in Cryptic Death, in 1997. Full of elegance and style, the observant detective is often accompanied by her niece Sita on crime adventures that generally find its motives rooted in very humane characteristics like greed, jealousy or lust.
She has every quality of a quintessential detective–she is erratic, has a detail-oriented mind and her deductive skills are top-notch. Though niece Sita states that she is ‘nondescript’, the curious sleuth might remind one of the legendary Miss Marple.
However, the differentiating factor between the two is Lalli’s acquaintance with self-defence and her impeccable shooting skills. The last resort of the Mumbai police makes her latest appearance in ‘Murder in Seven Acts: Lalli Mysteries’, where she faces a serial killer attacking the kids of Mumbai’s Kandewadi slum.
Feminist Tamil writer CS Lakshmi, also known by her pen name Ambai brings to us another elderly sleuth, Sudha Gupta who appears in a series of three novellas titled ‘Sudha Gupta Investigates: A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge’.
A female detective character created by a woman writer can be very different from our regular Holmes or Byomkesh in the sense that lived experiences of the writer and how a woman faces the society is reflected in those stories.
As a private detective working informally with her inspector friend Govind Shelke, her cases don’t deal with black and white incidents. Instead, they focus on the sentiments, human emotions and psychology of the individuals that lead them to behave the way they do. While there are sensitive issues like sexual and domestic abuse, over intrusive parents and questions on the sacred institution of marriage, some of the cases also have a touch of humour to them.
And when our sleuth is not dealing with complex human issues, one can find her sipping cinnamon tea.
Parveen Mistry-Sujata Massey
Sujata Massey’s Parveen Mistry takes us back to pre-independence India, where she appears in two stories- The Widows of Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone. In both of the stories which start as legal issues, the protagonist who is a solicitor at her father’s law firm, finds herself in the midst of murder mysteries and family secrets.
The most intriguing part about Parveen Mistry is that her character is loosely based on Cornelia Sorabji, who was the first Indian woman to have graduated from Bombay University, the first woman law student at Oxford University and the first female advocate to practice law not only in India but Britain as well.
Mitin Mashi-Suchitra Bhattacharya
Pragyaparamita Mukherjee or Mitin Mashi (Aunt Mitin) doesn’t need any separate introduction for Bengali fiction readers. For others, Suchitra Bhattacharya’s thirty-something sleuth lives in Dhakuria with husband Partha and son Bumbum and works as a private detective for the agency Third Eye, which is highly lauded by the Kolkata police. Mitin, accompanied by niece Tupur, has already established herself as a successful detective and has had her fair share of thrills. Some of the cases in her bag deal with blackmail and murder, bank fraud and a murder caused by air embolism.
Quite like our beloved Feluda, this 21st-century detective also believes in the power of ‘Mogojastro’ or ‘brain-weapon’ over a revolver. Mitin Mashi, whose first appearance was in the novel ‘Sarandai Saitan’, is one of the very few female detective characters in Bengali literature.
Super Spy Gulabi-Jane De Suza
This one is very different from others sleuths and finds its way to the list due to uniqueness. Gulabi from Jharkhand never meant to be super-spy. However, she does have a case to solve- finding a perfect husband for herself, which brings her to Mumbai. As fate would have it, she finds her in the midst of an amazing adventure when she finds a mutilated head at her disposal. Her vow of discovering the criminals takes us on a humourous trip through the lanes of the mega city. But our girl also has to be careful as she is skating on thin ice. The small town girl’s journey in the big city, from searching for a groom to looking for criminals, is something to look out for.