This novel (which in English means "Paleri Manikyam: A Midnight Murder Story")straddles the no man's land between fiction and reportage. Apparently it is based on a true incident: the rape and murder of a beautiful girl, Manikyam
, immediately after she is married and brought to the Northern Kerala village of Paleri in 1957. The case is interesting because it is the first recorded case of its kind in the newly formed state of Kerala, and the first case to be investigated during the tenure of the first democratically elected communist government in the world (so many firsts!). However, the court records show a typically botched-up case: an incomplete investigation, weak prosecution witnesses and total lack of evidence which allows the accused to get away scot-free. Fifty years after the incident, the unnamed narrator is probing into the incident, intent upon getting into the heart of the matter. But it is far from easy because most of the dramatis personae
have passed away, and many of the remaining are almost senile.
Manikyam, a village beauty from another village, is brought to Paleri as the bride of the village idiot Pokkan. The scheming mind of the local evil landlord, Ahmed Haji, is behind this: as with any beautiful girl in the region, he wants Manikyam for himself. Manikyam's mother-in-law Cheeru is already his keep.
However, Manikyam proves to be made of different stuff - she would have none of it. Afraid that the hue and cry made by her would alert the village and publicly disgrace him, Haji arranges a play in the town, free for all, thus ensuring that all villagers would be away. With the help of Cheeru, Haji sees to it that the girl would not be able to go for the play, and also that her husband is away. The stage is thus perfectly set for rape.
During that fateful night, however, the girl is murdered. The inconsistent witness statements point fingers in many directions. And the cause of truth is not helped by self-seeking policemen, helping to protect the rich and influential.
An excellent premise for a whodunit, isn't it? But the novel is much more. On the framework of the classic detective story, the novelist hangs the history of a rapidly changing region, a social commentary on the caste-relationships of Kerala, and the deep, dark mythology of a country still not very far removed from the days of tribal warfare. Manikyam herself becomes a legend (as exemplified by the ballad written about her): a symbol both of downtrodden femininity and the lower classes and the all-pervading, blood-drinking Goddess who is forever present in the Malayali psyche. As the narrator keeps on uncovering layer after layer of truth, the heart of the land also stands revealed.
This is an interesting read, if you resign yourself to the fact that the ultimate revelation is not mind-blasting like a proper mystery. To be fair, it is based upon a true story (though I could not find any reference to it on the web) and we cannot expect real life to behave like a Hercule Poirot mystery. Also, the novel rambles at times, moving into side avenues and expository passages: it is not exactly a page-turner.
The verdict: a strange, unique but ultimately unsatisfying book.