Review: The Blue Bar by Damayanti Biswas
A whodunit set in Mumbai that features a tortured police inspector trying to come to grips with his past even as he investigates a chilling new case
Seventeen-year-old Tara Mondal has been performing in Mumbai’s dance bars for several years. In 2002, a client asks her to carry out an odd fantasy in exchange for a huge sum of money. In desperate need, she accepts the offer. The operation involves wearing a blue-sequined saree in a crowded railway station and disappearing within three minutes. After that, no one sees her again.
More than a decade later, her lover, Inspector Arnav Singh Rajput, now involved with a journalist, is still struggling with Tara’s loss. His own story is marred by family tragedy. When he was 13, his sister Asha, a rape survivor, took her own life after she was denied justice. His parents too had died soon after. At the beginning of the novel, Arnav is grappling with a new case: decayed female bodies are being unearthed from various parts of the city’s suburbs. All of them have tiny blue sequins on them. He learns that, over a decade, women have been disappearing around the time of major festivals like Diwali and Dussehra. “Somewhere in the city a real-life Ravan prowled, kidnapping women, torturing and killing them.”
The first body is discovered near Madh Island where builder Rahul Taneja is constructing a luxury spa facing the sea for a hotel chain. The suspect Taneja, who has previously been accused of sexual misconduct, is engaged to socialite and designer Kittu Virani, best known as the mother of Bollywood star brothers, Karan and Rehaan.
Turns out that dreadful things have also happened to those working on these unsolved crimes. Despite the danger, Arnav, who is particularly interested in cases involving dead, molested or missing women as he believes working on them will lead him to the truth about what happened to Tara, plunges into the investigation.
Cut to Tara. 14 years after she disappeared, when dance bars are reopening in Mumbai, she returns to the city. “The shivering girl of yore” is now a “frenzied yet defiant woman” with a 13-year-old daughter. She gets a job as the lead bar dancer and choreographer at the revamped and relocated Blue Bar. Of course, Tara and Arnav are destined to meet again.
Author Damyanti Biswas draws up a powerful image of Mumbai with its “slums with tin-and-tarpaulin roofs” and “shiny billboards advertising refrigerators and televisions, with posters featuring building-sized faces of film stars”. The prose is peppered with local slang words like pandu (incompetent policeman), supari (contract to kill), and hafta (protection money) and city scenes are vividly described. Borivali railway station with its milling passengers speaking various regional languages and exuding a mix of body odour and perfumes, especially, comes alive. Biswas, whose earlier crime novel You beneath Your Skin (2019) was optioned for the screen by Endemol Shine, effectively illustrates the social disparities in the “city of dreams” with its great wealth existing alongside absolute squalor and poverty. “The same city, but two countries, poles apart.”
It is clear that much research has gone into the writing. All of it comes out in the descriptions of the city’s slums, in the insights into the lives of Mumbai’s police personnel and the workings of the film industry. The Blue Bar navigates the murky world of Mumbai’s dance bars, explores their nexus with the police, Bollywood, real estate tycoons and the underworld and also presents how bar dancers are viewed by religious institutions, women’s rights groups and society at large.
The book begins with the line “Endings are overrated” but what’s a whodunit without an unexpected twist leading to a satisfying denouement? “Sometimes the best looking, most innocent faces hid criminals,” writes Biswas. And thereby hangs a tale.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel.