Four years ago, Arathi Menon wrote about surviving a divorce in a book that came in a pretty blue cover. It was called Leaving Home with Half a Fridge. She was splitting everything – including a fridge – into half and leaving a five year old marriage; and in a surprisingly lighter vein, she told her readers how. It may intrigue readers that in April 2019, Arathi has come back with a children’s mystery novel – A Thud in the Middle of the Night -- set in Kerala, the hometown of her parents.
“I like experimenting with all forms of writing. A short story of mine got published by a small press in the UK, a play was on the long list for the Ivan Juritz Prize (UK, 2018), I am working on a novel for adults, and of course, my children’s mystery novel, A Thud In The Middle of The Night, was published by Mango Books (DC Books) in April 2019. Each form demands a different kind of rigour and approach. For me, this juggling of word and world structures is extremely rewarding,” writes Arathi on an email interview from London.
When the introductory email came for the book, A Thud in the Middle of the Night was described as a sort of hat-tip to Enid Blyton, English children’s writer, whose mystery novels are very popular in Kerala. Arathi, a Malayali who grew up elsewhere, is no exception. She writes: “I used to devour Enid Blyton when I was a kid - Five Find-outers, Malory Towers, Magic Faraway Tree, Galliano's Circus, The Adventure Series, Famous Five, Secret Seven -- all of them unfolded new worlds for me. That’s why when I thought about writing a children’s book, I wanted to pay a tribute to this doyen of children’s literature.”
She, of course, made the whole context Indian – replacing sandwiches with cut mangoes dipped in chilly and salt, and more importantly, England with India. “This book is not only a mystery but will introduce readers to the cuisine, culture and will serve-up a tiny slice of Kerala,” she writes. All these are beautifully illustrated by KR Raji.
Her book has three child protagonists – Tam, the 10-year-old who visits Kerala for the summer holiday, Arj and Mira, her cousins in Kerala. The three turn detectives when there is a theft in the house and the doctor parents approach their friend and policeman Thombu. All the names – like Thombu’s – have a certain ring to it. The kids call the milk lady Dumdum Chechi, the cook Pitamma, the fish seller DoubleMean, and the boy who cleans the well, Well Cleaner Mani. There is more – the driver, the irritating pincher Kodavis, the electrician Fan Fixer Faeku, and the nice old woman who comes with many gifts, Taramma.
Arathi has an explanation for the names. “Giving characters made-up names is such joy. I wanted to give them identities, which would evoke a certain image. So, for example, when you hear Dumdumchechi - you do think of someone on the heavier side (she is written as someone who is bigger than the cows she feeds). Or Pitamma is from one of the favourite breakfasts Malayalis like to feast on – Pitteh.”
All of them are, of course, suspects too. And each of them has a story to tell, a secret to reveal. It is at one moment realistic and another moment, fantasy-like, the way the three children go about their investigations. At the right places, Arathi has them behave as children, with their impatient ways and their little egos and their natural fears of an adult world. Mira, the nine-year-old and the youngest of the lot, for instance, is horrified at the idea of being left behind by the older two and often blurts out things more innocently than the others. Tam, the outsider, adores the beauty of life in Kerala but gets into a fight with her cousin Arj every so often, like cousins do when they are 10 and 11. Arj, the senior-most, tries to be the most mature of the lot, not that he always succeeds.
The adults in the story – the doctor parents and the ‘suspects’ are given lesser time and description. We just know that Damodar, the father, has a very good reputation – the townsfolk the children run into keep calling him the good doctor. But he appears a little strict and the children are afraid to approach him. The mother, Sheila aunty, does not have a lot of role to play, except of course it is her jewels that get stolen.
You might wonder if there are traces of Arathi in Tam. Arathi writes in her disclaimer, “All characters in the book are works of fiction and any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.”
But she adds, “Having said that, I did spend my summer holidays with my cousins who are also my best friends - Rekha, Sujith and Radhi in Prem Villa, a gorgeous white, old house with a backyard full of mud mounds in Kerala. Also, I’m glad you thought I was Tam, she is a particular favourite.”