The novel opens with 47-year-old multi-millionaire Jayant Mathur getting shot at point blank range with his own pistol. Radha, the daily help, finds the body, soaked in blood, much to her consternation, and Inspector Phadke comes into the scene. He finds the widow, Anjali Mathur, who “appeared beautiful, though she was as still as a statue” in a state of shock, along with Parth Bhardawaj who claims to be a family friend.
The plot thickens as Phadke asks all the right questions. Was Jayant the suicidal sort? Why did he and his wife, Anjali, sleep in separate bedrooms? Was this the act of a burglar? If so, why did the alarm not go off? Who would benefit after Jayant’s death?
Soon a plethora of characters appear – Jayant’s old parents, Makarand and Chaya, anguished at their son’s untimely death, his older sisters, Smita and Nandita, and their husbands. Smita’s husband, Rana, is introduced as a blusterer and trouble-maker. He “talked big and helped none”, misleading the police and the press through his wild allegations.
It is clear that Parth is in charge here, a fact that Rana disapproves of. The former handles the police and the forensic people, keeps the press at bay and holds the situation together. Arjun, Jayant’s and Anjali’s son, who is studying at Kingston University, is grief-stricken as, to him, Jayant was a larger than life figure, a hero and a successful businessman whom he idolized. Arjun adores his lion-hearted mother as well, and at the moment, his entire life has fallen apart. One cannot help liking the young boy who veers between moments of bewilderment and maturity.
Samrat, who runs a one-man show detective agency, is brought in by Parth to investigate the case, and to find the murderer before the police and the media bungle things up.
While the story starts off as a thriller, there is an intense interplay of emotions, as various relationships get thrown into focus; those between Anjali and Jayant, Anjali and Parth, and Jayant and Seema, his executive assistant. As various startling facts are unearthed during the investigation, Parth’s character comes into prominent focus, as a man ten times as wealthy as Jayant, and an internationally acclaimed writer of thrillers and travelogues. His piercing silver eyes on a tanned face are the icing on the cake.
Anjali, who has her own demons to deal with, goes through the throes of stoicism and despair, and even falls into the slough of depression, as she goes through life like “a bird with clipped wings”. However, a chance to redeem her life comes when she meets Parth, who urges her to work for him as a researcher for his next novel. She opens up her heart to him, as he looms “like a rock in the midst of a stormy sea”. As she trembles on the threshold of finding happiness again, Jayant gets killed.
The questions continue, unabated. Why was Jayant murdered? Who was the murderer and what was the motive behind the murder? Did Jayant have enemies or was it a business rival who knocked him off?
‘An Autograph for Anjali’ begins with a murder, but even as the investigation gets underway, it is the romantic angle that is more explored. Sundari Venkatraman’s expertise at weaving romance comes across effectively, as her characters come to life, breathe and love fiercely. The novel glides smoothly as the readers grapple with emotions of sorrow, anticipation, suspense and joy, with no false notes that derail their concentration. The words are simple, but effective, the emotions carefully woven for maximum effect, as the story winds its way to a satisfying denouement.
If one has to look for a flaw, it is in the characterization of Jayant, who comes across as a spoilt and pampered brat, the youngest of three siblings, and a man who, despite being a contemporary businessman, has still a core of conservatism and patriarchy in his soul. However, this is not a flaw to be attributed to the pen of the author, but to the existence of such men even today, who appear worldly-wise and modern, but are just the opposite in real life!
Sundari has a penchant for bringing forth social issues in her novels. Here she deals with the problems that married couples could go through if they are incompatible. The issue of severe depression is also touched upon and dealt with. However, it is apparent that Sundari is a fan of the ‘happily ever after’ theme, which recurs in her books, and leaves the reader in a happy place.
Verdict: Highly readable!