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Shamini Flint (born 26 October 1969) is a Malaysia-born former lawyer turned novelist.
Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder
- [T]here was absolutely no possibility of a successful resolution to the case he had just been handed. There never was when religion trumped rational behaviour and politics influenced police work.
- He knew from his own experience in Singapore that the further up the ladder one got, the more the job was about politics and statistics than actually dealing with crime.
- [S]o many languages were spoken in Malaysia that quite often the wheels of justice ground to a standstill for the lack of an interpreter who could restore the tower of babel to a court of law.
- Chelsea Liew! A ridiculous name - par for the course with the adoption of Western names by Singaporeans aiming to give themselves a cosmopolitan air. Unfortunately, they often picked the most improbable monikers. Inspector Singh had come across young Singaporeans revelling in first names like Mayfair and Rothmans.
- No respectable Sikh family would buy art merely for its aesthetic qualities.
- "Buried six feet under, buried facing Mecca, burnt to cinders ... it does not matter. He is rotting in hell this very moment."
- It seemed, pondered the inspector, that no sooner did you give a man a car than he wanted to drive somewhere and do something.
- Singh could not help but think that, in a hospital, the proximity of death was best disguised — and the actual dead hidden. It was not conducive to the right frame of mind for recovery to have the morgue signposted for patients. It would be the medical equivalent of 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here'.
- And yet, the inspector thought, Kuala Lumpur had a certain something. It was difficult for him to put his finger on what it was exactly. There was a sense of freedom perhaps, of anarchy even, that Singapore so sorely lacked. Perhaps it was the lack of deference to authority, the physical space, the ability to take a step back and enjoy a moment of quiet that lent Kuala Lumpur its atmosphere.
- Singaporeans were always adding to the list of reasons each one kept to hand, in case they met a Malaysian, of why it was so much better on the island than the peninsula. They ranged from law and order to cleanliness, from clean government to good schools, and always ended on the strength of the Singaporean economy. But in the end, the Malaysian would nod, as if to agree on the points made — and shrug to indicate that they wouldn't trade passports, not really.
- Sometimes, if you want to protect something you care about, you have to take extreme steps.
- Now he was in a holding pen with various members of the Kuala Lumpur criminal fraternity and they scared him [...] They ranged from a Chinese gang member, whose dragon tattoo foraged up his arm and curled around his neck, to a large, [sic] Indian man with a jet-black moustache and pocked-marked face, brooding in a corner. The majority of his cellmates appeared from their accents to be Indonesians, part of the large contingent of illegal immigrants in Malaysia. [...] At least, he thought, the government should be proud that their efforts to integrate the various races in Malaysia into a cohesive society were bearing such fruit. It was a very multi-racial group that was penned in together.
- The Penan do not have many possessions. They have lived for generations in the Borneo forests in harmony with their environment, taking what they need from the jungle, leaving no footprint but that of bare feet on muddy earth washed away with each rain. It was not difficult for them to regroup and move deeper into the forest. They would not be missed and traces of their ephemeral presence would soon be erased.
- In Singapore, house renovation had only one goal — to convey wealth. He had seen houses that appeared huge, with a vast amount of road frontage, only to pass by another day using another route and discover that the same house was narrower than a long boat.
- The act of speaking, the release from silence, invariably meant that the prisoner would say too much, give something away, let slip an honest truth in the midst of the self-justification. Inspector Singh, like a fine piano-tuner, could listen to these verbal outpourings and pick up those hints of expression or emotion that were off-key and those that rang true. And so he waited for Jasper Lee to open his mouth, and a door to the truth, at the same time.
- The gods were fighting over her children but she could not seek the help of any of them. And she had so much choice. She had grown up a Buddhist, her ex-husband was alleged a Moslem when he died, her own sister was a Christian - so many options for salvation. [...] Chelsea would have settled for solace through prayer. But she did not believe that there was an invisible hand behind the farce that was her life's play. At the very least she did not believe in a benevolent God. [...] Surely it was better to lay the blame for the machinations of fate at the door of chance?
- Rupert did not understand why the parasites in cities did not understand the most fundamental tenet of nature - that a parasite eventually kills its host. Did these people not know that if they continued to feed and spread and grow, with the tendrils of their greed wrapping themselves around their host, the day would come when it could no longer sustain them and when it died they would too?
- But these quiet people, in their animal skin clothes with their diet of sago, were not to be left alone to wander through the lush jungles, living off the land, leaving no mark when they moved on, teaching their children the secrets of the forest. The greed of others could not co-exist with the selflessness of the Penan with their gentle humour and generous hearts.
- He suspected they did it not just because of their voracious appetite for tropical hardwoods and the money that it brought in, but because of a visceral fear that someday they might have to acknowledge that they were wrong. Everything they had sought and bought had not brought them happiness, let alone contentment. [...] It was better to destroy the potential source of such unpalatable truths than have them live to witness the lives of quiet desperation of their tormentors.
Inspector Singh Investigates: A Curious Indian Cadaver
- Temples are places of worship, not war. We should never have let separatists hole up in our gurdwaras.
- A mob is more than the sum of individuals. It is more like a single creature with many arms and legs, hydra-headed but working with one idea.
- “Eighty per cent of doctors in the United States are of Indian origin,” snapped Mrs. Singh, looking up from the computer for a moment to ensure that he was paying attention.
“That can’t possibly be right,” protested Singh.
“It says so right here,” said his wife, pointing a bony finger at the screen and basking in the blue light like an acolyte before a high priest.
“Not everything you read on the Internet is true,” muttered Singh, addressing his remark to the skinny back in the flamboyant pink caftan.
- Women like her, conservative and narrow-minded, were quite willing to believe that someone arrested for pilfering was congenitally pre-disposed to commit more serious crimes, eventually and naturally culminating in murder. In her view, fixating on the evidence for an individual crime was just pedantic. Mind you, Singh had met high court judges with the same attitude. He wondered for a moment why his wife had such faith in the police force in the abstract and so little confidence in his role in it.
- He would avoid her relatives in the same way he’d always done – by sitting irascibly in a corner and allowing their waves of curiosity to wash over him.
- Singh was distracted by a strong and unpleasant smell that suddenly pervaded the airplane. He sniffed cautiously, protruding nostril hairs quivering. It didn’t smell like burning fuel or melting plastic or any of those olfactory sensations that would have caused him to make a dash for the exits.
He turned to Mrs. Singh who was reading the in-flight magazine with the disdain of one who preferred to Google her subjects rather than have them pre-selected by an editor.
“What’s that stink?” he whispered.
“India,” she answered succinctly and then turned her attention back to a gleaming picture of the Taj Mahal resplendent in its manicured gardens, its reflection shimmering in a lake ...
- Mrs. Singh finally hove into view.
“About bloody time,” he muttered. “These fellows have been trying to take our passports, our bags, our trolley – they’d have walked off with me balanced on their heads if you’d taken any longer.”
“Strong but not that strong,” remarked Mrs. Singh, leading the way to the taxi rank.
- Her life had all the ingredients of a Bollywood movie except the happy ending.
- "He gives away a lot of money to charity and supports Sikh causes.”
“Maybe we could persuade him that I’m a Sikh cause.”
- In the foreground, right on the waterfront, was a massive pastel yellow arch – the Gateway of India.
“It was built to welcome King George V when he visited India,” explained his well-briefed, Google-friendly wife.
“They didn’t think a bunch of flowers would do?” asked [Inspector] Singh.
“Anyway, it was only completed twelve years after the visit.”
Singh grinned. That was the sort of managerial incompetence that he found amusing.
- There had been encroachments by Pakistani troops over the line of control in Kashmir. Editorials solemnly urged the government to adopt a firm stance. Right, thought [Inspector] Singh. Two nuclear powers adopting a ‘firm’ stance was definitely the right way forward.
- Global warming was to blame according to scientists and the government had promised tough climate goals. Next to the article was another one, lauding the Tata Nano, the ‘one lakh’ car. No one seemed inclined to point out the contradiction between reducing global warming and sticking a bunch of cheap cars on the road ... There was something to be said for the ‘no news is good news’ approach of the Singapore dailies. Certainly, an ordinary day’s worth of news in the Straits Times, tucked in between the advertisements for supermarket chains, cheap holidays and miraculous slimming treatments, didn’t look quite like this.
- Humanity was doomed, decided Singh, which made his job of hunting down individual murderers particularly pointless.
- The inspector sighed, a gentle rolling sound. He should have insisted all those years ago that the matchmakers found him a wife with a fondness for cricket. On the other hand, Mrs. Singh was already a formidable creature – was placing a heavy willow bat in her hands really a good idea? Singh, chewing on his bottom lip, decided that he preferred a wife who could cook over one who could bat.
- “You see,” whispered Mrs. Singh triumphantly, “we just had to find someone trustworthy.” She continued darkly, “In India, you can only trust your own kind. Blood calls to blood.”
One friendly Sikh and suddenly they were all part of the Sikh brotherhood.
- Singh was always impressed at his wife’s ability to draw large conclusions from infinestimal pieces of evidence. She’d fit right into the Singapore police murder squad.
- In a few minutes, they were whizzing past small boys who had the latest cricket scores written on bits of cardboard. They held up the information for passing traffic and the drivers exclaimed at the news – Sachin Tendulkar had scored a fifty – and threw coins at them in thanks. So much for avoiding the result of the game, thought Singh. This system was more efficient than subscribing for updates on a mobile phone.
- The apartment building was tall and modern and would not have looked out of place in Singapore. In Singh’s view, it was extremely dull. “I thought that these rich Indians lived in mansions with one lot of stairs going up and another coming down and dancing girls everywhere?”
“You watch too much TV.”
- “What are you trying to say?”
“Well, she’s due to get married and she runs away from home…what else is one supposed to think?”
“Are the Singapore police trained to leap to conclusions, Inspector?”
Tanvir’s ironic remark was a little too close to the bone. Still, one did have to examine the obvious before indulging in colourful speculation.
“Embellish your theory, Inspector,” said Tara Singh. His voice was as sharp as the knives with stiletto points that Singh sometimes found embedded in the chests of victims.
- Out of the corner of his eye, Singh noted that the younger brother looked scared. There were secrets within this family. But was there anything odd in that? All families had something to hide, a sin that loomed large in the household although trivial in the greater scheme of things. A quarrel between members, feuding factions, perhaps an affair. It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the missing woman.
- Sycophantic little tosser, thought Singh, protecting his inheritance with a bit of brown-nosing. He looked at Tara Singh. Weren’t these big-time industrialists supposed to be good judges of character? Surely he could see through the boy? And why was the brother reluctant to have Singh involved anyway? Didn’t he want to find his sister?
- In India, Inspector Singh, life is sometimes very cheap.
- He could have added that many bodies went unclaimed because relatives could not afford a funeral. Men and women left their villages to find work in the cities and were far from loved ones when some accident carried them away. And of course, there were those who were killed in the sudden outbreaks of communal violence – it was difficult to find the family of these victims, many of whom might have died at the same time, escaped to their villages or be too traumatised to search for the missing.
- In each puddle of light, like a morality play, the homeless lay on carefully laid out bits of cardboard or blanket. The ‘new middle class’ of Mumbai, spoken of in hushed tones by economists, stepped over the sleeping forms or skirted around them without breaking stride as they headed for the nearest Starbucks to fulfil their destiny as the engine of Indian economic growth.
- “I’m telling you that I knew Ashu. She was like a daughter to me. There is no way she would have killed herself – and in such a way.”
“The police seem quite sure,” he replied.
“The police in India are like a river, Inspector Singh, always taking the path of least resistance.”
Singh decided to save the metaphor for an occasion when he could use it on Superintendent Chen.
- “Washing machines?” Singh was baffled.
“Any electrical item. Everyone is wanting one to show off. Even if they still give the clothes to the dhobi wallah. He irons also, you see,” she said, making a vigorous motion with her right hand. Mrs. Singh – the method actor.
So technology had not yet mastered all the skills of that wiry man in the dirty lunghi with a pile of clothes on his head. Singh was suddenly glad. To his surprise, he realised that India was getting under his skin. Already, he was feeling defensive about the old way of doing things.
- His appetite was sharp and the reasons were twofold. One, he’d missed dinner while traipsing around looking at corpses. And two, his wife had elicited the information that breakfast was part of the generous package sponsored by Tara Singh.
- He didn’t bother to answer his wife and opened the newspaper instead. There was a cholera outbreak in the slums, more nuclear sabre-rattling from the governments of India and Pakistan and a riot because a Bollywood film had gone too far. Apparently, Indian morals were being compromised. Singh smiled happily. They just didn’t make the newspapers like this in Singapore.
- The American stroked a long grey moustache. “They said this is the other economic powerhouse of Asia.” He snorted his derision. “In China things work.”
“But this is the world’s largest democracy,” protested Singh. “You’re not going to get the same kind of order as China.” The fat man closed his eyes for a moment – he couldn’t believe he was getting defensive about India and sounding like his wife to boot.
“I don’t think much of the democracy they got over here."
- “It’s impossible to run a business in this town. Corruption, nepotism, cronyism – you name it, it’s here.”
“So was Ashu Kaur an example of nepotism?”
“Because she was Tara Singh’s granddaughter? Actually, she was a good worker, smart, knew her stuff. And she didn’t mind getting her hands dirty.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re not from India, are you?”
The American calmed down immediately. “Now there’s a place I like to do business. Clean, organised, honest, efficient and no slums on the doorstep.”
- Singh sat in front of a screen glumly, occasionally scrolling down with one grubby finger on a key. He hated computers. He especially hated information presented to him in such an impersonal way. There was no human touch here. Whatever opinions might have been found scribbled in the margins of a hard copy were nowhere to be found online.
- “Where’re you from?”
“I’m a policeman from Singapore and a distant relative by marriage to Ashu’s family,” replied Singh.
“I’ve been there – most boring place in the world, I think,” said Sameer.
Singh grinned. This was a different opinion from that of the American boss.
- The inspector wondered whether ‘those people’ really had immunity or just died at a higher rate than the wealthier denizens of the city. He suspected the latter.
- “So your certainty that Ashu was murdered by her family despite the absence of any evidence is based on your certainty that they were behind the assault on you for which you don’t have any evidence either?”
Sameer was undaunted by the sarcasm. “It’s your job to find evidence, Singh. I’ve just made it easy for you by identifying the murderers.”
- A shudder ran through the stout frame of the policeman. He tried to remember if he’d ever seen a rat in Singapore. A few scrawny squirrels that looked a lot like rats and the occasional garden shrew – that was the sum of rodent life in his recent past. Inspector Singh, who prided himself on his familiarity with the dark fringes of society, realised that he’d been fooling himself. His Singaporean version was the Disney equivalent of the seedy side of life.
- Self-immolation was a peculiarly anticipatory gesture for someone who would eventually be cremated and her ashes scattered in a river. Mrs. Singh wondered whether the family would take the ashes to the Punjab or whether a river closer at hand would suffice. ... She tried to imagine for a moment what [her husband] would do when she died.
Probably chuck her ashes into the nearest monsoon drain and head to a coffee shop for a cold beer.
- If they’d been in Singapore, he’d have thrown an army of investigators at the place, established once and for all whether there was a nexus between the factory and the illness at the slum. He didn’t have that option in India.
- “Do you think of yourself as an Indian, Inspector?”
“I suppose so. In Singapore, with so many different races living cheek to cheek, it’s hard to forget your roots.”
“Outsiders think that all Indians are one big happy family. But within the country we know better.”
- “Sikhs seem to have done quite well in India,” said the inspector provocatively, looking around the gleaming office with its panoramic views of the brown smog hanging over the city.
“Don’t be fooled,” said Tara. “This is just window dressing. There are Sikh figureheads everywhere including that Manmohan Singh. But if you look deeper, you will see the truth!”
“And what is that?” asked the inspector.
“We’re second-class citizens. They deny us our rights in Punjab. What about water rights? What about Chandigarh? What about our language? They attack our places of worship and massacre our citizens ...” Tara Singh was a man who preferred to have the last word. “You foreigners,” he said. “You don’t understand India.”
- The inspector was suddenly reminded of his English literature classes as a teenager. The teacher dissecting Jane Austen while the boys looked bored and the girls swooned over Darcy. Certainly, there was enough pride and prejudice within this Sikh clan to write a number of sequels. Although Jane Austen had never felt the need to sully her books with premature death, or premature pregnancies for that matter.
- That was probably the most truthful thing that Tanvir had said to him yet. Wherever one was in the world, it seemed that it was difficult to bring the rich and powerful to book. It was enough to turn anyone into a communist – as long as it didn’t mean he had to share his cigarettes and beer.
- The fact of the matter was that he was spoilt. Singapore was such a pleasant place to hunt down murderers. It was easy to get around, hardly any traffic. The killers had nowhere to run, the island was so small. The air was clean and the trees green so his health didn’t deteriorate as he pursued his vocation. He stared sadly at a dusty spindly tree surrounded by a protective cordon of railings. Here, even the trees were in prison.
- “How’s the investigation going – any light at the end of the tunnel?”
“Of an oncoming train.”
- “Don’t know about police methods in the United States,” remarked Singh, “but where I come from a person last seen having an argument with someone who later turns up dead goes straight to the top of the list of suspects.”
- “I’m quite persuasive,” said Singh, his face forbidding. “And,” he amended, “she was willing to be persuaded.”
- “Everyone needs a hobby,” said [Inspector] Singh.
“Oh, I see,” said [Inspector] Singh, flippancy erased from his voice. “That’s not good news.”
- Without money, terrorists were just angry young men with an axe to grind. With money, the metaphorical axe became real and sharp and terrifying. He knew that very well – had learnt it the hard way – from his murder investigation in Bali after the bombings there.
- If publicity was the lifeblood of terrorists, the week-long siege of the hotel had been a massive transfusion.
- “I thought you didn’t approve of my job.”
“Different when it’s family.”
“Most murder victims have families.”
She nodded once. “So you better hurry up and find this killer instead of hiding here smoking cigarettes.”
- Singh returned to his reading material, a glossy brochure that folded like a particularly annoying map, for the products of Bharat Chemicals. ... A flowchart explained that the employee structure ‘combined the best elements of East and West’ – surly American management and cheap Indian labour, concluded Singh.
- Having accidentally watched ten minutes of a head-waggling, hip-shaking, breast-jiggling extravaganza on television, the inspector wasn’t surprised that thespian qualities were not at a premium. It was disheartening, however, to think that it was skin colour that was of paramount importance instead.
- “Indian police not at all good at keeping secrets.”
“The press doesn’t seem to know that it’s murder,” said Singh reassuringly.
- “Finger prints?”
Singh sighed. Was there a criminal out there who didn’t know to wipe his prints?
- “Text messaging?”
“That is main way that trouble-makers are getting flash mobs together for riots,” explained Patel.
Singh chewed on his bottom lip thoughtfully. Technology had a lot to answer for. ... It did beg the question though – how had the more tiresome elements of society begun riots before the era of mobile phones – carrier pigeons?
- “Sounds like preparation for war,” remarked Singh, yet again forced to contemplate the difference between Singapore policing’s idea of a tough day at the office, an outbreak of jaywalking perhaps, and the Indian equivalent.
“Sometimes it is exactly like war,” said Patel in a quiet voice and Singh had a sudden glimpse into the abyss.
- Singh stared down at the empty clear-plastic slots and felt a profound sense of loss. These pages would remain forever empty now. No happy family, no children. Was that a bit sexist? No Nobel Prize for Chemistry, he amended.
- [Inspector] Singh closed his eyes and contemplated the gloom within. Circles within circles. Would a child of one of these dead men – killed in a holy place – grow up with revenge on his mind like Tanvir Singh had done? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing
- "Why do you buy [shoddy goods] if you think the quality is so poor?"
- "Cheaper," [Mrs Singh] responded.
- "You get what you pay for," [Inspector Singh] pointed out.
- "That's what my father said when I complained about you."
- "That's Mao."
- "Do people still respect him?"
- "The government pays lip service to his memory, but the hero worship of past eras is over."
- "And what about the ordinary people?"
- "The so-called proletariat?"
- "They've found another god to follow."
- "Xi Jinping?"