Bhrigu Mahesh: The Witch of Senduwar left me thinking for months, recalling plot twists and character insights to see if I’d missed anything from Nisha Singh’s brilliant novel. The tale reminded me of Sherlock Holmes’ The Hound of the Baskervilles, not because of any similarities in the storyline, but due to the theme of seeking real-world, logical explanations of mysteries.
The story takes place in Senduwar, a real rural village in northeastern India somewhat near the more famous Varanasi. As I am also a writer and come from a somewhat out-of-the-way place, I was intrigued to see this book pop up right away in search results for the town, as I can imagine putting my own hometown of San Lorenzo, California on the map. The village was described effectively enough to give me, as a person who has never been to India, a feel for the society. Singh conveys coexistence among Hindus and Muslims, varied ways of life and ways of earning a living in the area, and the persistence of traditional attitudes even as some residents embrace modernity.
One of Bhrigu Mahesh’s greatest strengths is how each character’s motivations seem plausible. Some act out of fear, others out of altruism, or snobbishness, or insecurity – but all make sense given their personalities and life experiences. Also, in this book, how characters view each other depends a lot on their own perspectives. We can’t take characters’ descriptions of each other at face value, in most cases not because someone is lying, but just because there are different sides to each story.
Bhrigu’s best friend and partner, Sutte, is a journalist, which I appreciated, as I’ve pursued that line of work myself and enjoy seeing a reporter hero. And his nemesis, along with the criminals he outsmarts, is a bossy elderly aunt from whom he constantly vows to declare his independence. This subplot fills out his character, making him more human, and adds some comedic relief to this work of literary fiction.
The storyline isn’t predictable. I didn’t guess the ending or the identity of the murderer, although it made sense at the end given the person’s actions and words. The story is well-paced, not terribly slow but not hyper-fast as too many suspense novels are, whizzing from one explosion to another. This is appropriate for a story about a detective who relies on contemplating human psychology to solve his cases. And I enjoyed discovering the hidden purposes for some of Bhrigu’s actions later on in the book, such as one instance where we find out what he’d actually observed while seeming to interrogate suspects about certain topics.
The story carries a thoughtful tone throughout the book, sophisticated without consciously seeming so. Dialogue, action and description are all well-balanced, and each character speaks differently in ways that reflect their character. And it was good that Bhrigu Mahesh did not dwell on gruesome details of crimes or present an unrelentingly dark view of human nature. Nisha Singh has kicked off a now three-book series quite well without resorting to the sensational or macabre, and I look forward to seeing her continue.