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MURDER MYSTERY

A welcome translation

`In the hands of a gifted writer like Devan, the plot gallops, the characters come alive, and the suspense is often killing.'


COURTROOM drama? One immediately thinks of Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution", Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder or the numerous Perry Masons novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. The average Indian mind, somehow, does not reconcile easily to the idea of courtroom thrillers in regional languages.

Nearly 50 years back, I had read the Ananda Vikatan Tamil serial, Justice Jagannathan by one of its editors, Mahadevan (known as Devan) and found it engrossing. Years later I went back to the book and found it as good as any English courtroom thriller. The message was clear. Devan was a versatile genius who was as much at home in a courtroom thriller as he was in comic novels like Thuppariyum Sambu or Miss Janaki.

JJ was a rare foray for a Tamil novelist. It is the detailed account of a murder case where a young businessman, Varadaraja Pillai, stands trial for the murder of his father-in-law, Thyagaraja Pillai by poison. Most the action takes place inside the Sessions Courtroom, the protagonists are the accused, his charming wife, the redoubtable judge, the competent prosecutor, the brilliant defence counsel, the nine jurors. Events move fast in the 15-day trial and we are gripped by tension till the final verdict is announced.

The outstanding feature of the book is its authenticity. In the hands of a gifted writer like Devan, the plot gallops, the characters come alive, and the suspense is often killing. Devan has stuck closely to a real life courtroom drama and has an amazing eye for detail. From the time the trial starts till the time judgement is delivered, we are held in thrall.

Murder cases can be complicated and this one is. When prosecutor Karunakaran holds the fort, we feel that the accused is guilty. Yet when defence counsel Eswaran dominates the stage, we develop doubts. Pity the nine jurors who had to decide if a man was guilty of murder or not. Surprises keep on popping up. Who was the mysterious witness Kunti Devi? Why was nurse Vatsala so hostile to the accused? How did one assess the chief prosecution witness, Venkatesan?

Like a master story teller, Devan unravels one mystery after the other. He has his share of fun too, particularly in the sketching of the minor characters, the hotelier, the astrologer, the moneylender. Each witness is different from the other, but all of them are so human and real. Unlike in the traditional courtroom thrillers, Devan develops his characters even outside the court room, like for instance, the juror Gowrishankar or Sama Iyer, Eswaran's clerk We have some wonderful scenes dealing with the reporters covering the trial, the road-side discussions on the case, the lawyers' gossip and we readily join the frequent instances of Kortil Sirripu (laughter in the court room).

Of course, JJ is a welcome translation and Lakshmi Venkatraman does a good job, preferring for the most time literal translation. But she faces a problem. No translation can be as good as the original. Having read the Tamil original, full of Devan's sparkling wit, I felt something missing in this version. But the book will be a boon for those not familiar with the Tamil version. It should also appeal to younger readers who seldom read Tamil books. An unabashed Devan fan, I hope for more translations of his work. JJ is a well-produced book and is easy on the eye.

Justice Jagannathan: A Court room Drama of a Murder Trial, Devan, translated into English by Lakshmi Venkataraman, CBH Publishers, p.368, Rs. 200.

V. GANGADHAR

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