Khaali Makaan (empty house) is an intricate murder mystery penned by eminent Hindi mystery writer – Surendra Mohan Pathak. It had been authored more than three decades back but it is thoroughly enjoyable even today. It contains not only a mystery of the murders but also the humanitarian aspect of different things including the personality and attitude of an honest and dutiful cop. The climax of the novel not only presents the solution to the mystery but also touches the heart of the reader.
The story of Khaali Makaan is set in the fictitious city known as Rajnagar (created by the author only for a particular series of his novels). It narrates the investigation of twin murders supposedly taken place in an empty house which has been bought by an anonymous person from its owner who lives out of station. However the dead bodies of the victims are found in a boat floating aimlessly in the Krishna river (which flows beside the city). One of the victims is the priest of a church whereas the other one is a married Christian lady. The area where the empty house is located in is populated by the Christian community and is known as Georgetown. Investigating police officer is inspector Prabhu Dayaal who finds a plethora of suspects before him and it’s a Herculean task for him to expose the real murderer among them.
The victim lady is Mrs. Susan Dening whereas the victim gentleman is Reverend Dr. Joseph Cotton, the priest of the Church of Saint Michael. The murder suspects include William Dening, the husband of Susan; Mrs. Elizabeth Cotton, the wife of Joseph Cotton; Peter, a brother of Mrs. Cotton; Tony, another (younger) brother of Mrs. Cotton who is a little bit abnormal; Geroge Samson, the lawyer of the Cotton family; Henry Silvester, the president of the managing committee of the church; Ms. Helen Reedly, the ex-secretary of Joseph Cotton, Ms. Silvia Noris, the present secretary of Joseph Cotton etc.
When Prabhu Dayaal, the investigating cop sets to work alongwith his 37 member team consisting of sub-inspectors – Bansal, Sudhakar and Chandrakaant plus many Hawaldaars and constables; gradually the facts pertaining to the case and its characters start pouring out before him. There are many things beyond the comprehension of a person having a common sense like the absence of any rudders in the boat floating on the river with the dead bodies of the victims, the boat appearing to be a newly made one (which does not seem to have had any contact with water prior to this happening), no telltale signs of the murders viz. any blood stains, fingerprints or likewise found in the big hall of empty house which is supposed to be the venue of the murders; the rumours of the church’s being a haunted one, the throat of Susan’s dead body having been cut by a sharp blade etc. Susan was the ex-secretary of Joseph Cotton and said to be very intimate with him even after leaving his secretaryship. Their illicit relationship only appears to be the reason behind these twin murders but nothing is very clear and all the available facts do not appear to be consistent when looked upon together. Then what’s the solution to this mystery which is as entangled as a spider’s web ?The author usually writes such mysteries under his Sunil series whose hero (i.e, Sunil) is an investigative journalist. Inspector Prabhu Dayaal is a stock character of this series and the author has always portrayed him as a dutiful, honest and efficient cop. However since in a novel belonging to a particular series, the mystery is bound to be solved by the hero only, quite naturally, despite all his efficiency and sincerity, Prabhu Dayaal cannot solve any mystery because he is not the hero of the series. The author has shown him as complaining about it to himself (i.e., the author) and to satisfy him, the author promises him to write a novel in which the hero of the series, i.e., Sunil is absent, thus providing Prabhu Dayaal an opportunity to solve the case and stand true to his repute of being an efficient and dedicated cop.
This novel has been written accordingly only but the author has done one additional thing – he has kept himself also in the novel as the anchor of the happenings, showing himself as talking to Prabhu Dayaal from time to time. He has shown that his spirit has entered a Hawaldaar in Prabhu Dayaal’s team – Jagdish Prasaad Jannat and through Jannat, he maintains dialog with Prabhu Dayaal. These things have done no good to the otherwise very good mystery. The author’s anchoring through the character of Jannat and making dialog with the investigator hero, i.e., inspector Prabhu Dayaal blocks the flow of the smoothly proceeding narrative and irritates the reader. Thus the experiment of the author to keep himself in the novel has backfired because every time the author appears on the page, the reader gets a feel of reading an unrealistic novel, something like fantasy which the avid readers of this popular author do not expect from him.
However there cannot be any complaints regarding the quality of the plot and its treatment. It’s a spellbinding mystery and it’s almost impossible for the reader to guess the identity of the real murderer before the revelation of the same by the author himself. The investigator, i.e. Prabhu Dayaal has been portrayed as a sensitive person who keeps humanity above his personal interest and forgoes the credit for himself to solve the case. He allows the culprit to go scot-free on humanitarian ground and maintains the official status of the case as the one which could not be solved. That’s something which makes this novel as extra-ordinary and touches the reader’s heart.
The author is not known to be superstitious or keeping any belief in foretelling or likewise superhuman powers. However in this novel he has shown a sage who lives in a hut near that empty house and has been a witness to many events pertaining to this double murder case. This sage is highly educated and speaks English with fluency. He is a foreteller also and Prabhu Dayaal requests him to tell him his future only with respect to the fact whether he will be able to solve this case or not. The sage gives him the accurate answer that he’ll be able to solve it but for his own satisfaction only, he won’t get any credit or fame for it. This way also, Khaali Makaan can be considered an exceptional novel coming from the pen of Surendra Mohan Pathak. I do not believe in foretelling but there is little doubt that the character of the sage (Saadhu Maharaaj) has added a lot of colour to the already interesting story.
The language is simple but free-flowing. The dialogues are apt and impressive. Interesting discussions regarding the case take place between the main investigative officer and his team members which add spice to the narrative.
I recommend Khaali Makaan as a spellbinding murder mystery to all those who can read Hindi. I have read this novel many times and every time I read it, the question that strikes my mind, can such time ever come when a majority of cops in the Indian police force are sincere, honest, efficient and above all, sensitive and humanistic like the immortal Prabhu Dayaal created by Surendra Mohan Pathak ?
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