A Degree in Death: A Book Review

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A boy is dead in his college hostel. Everyone in the college, from hostel warden to Lecturers hates him, due to his rowdy nature. Who might have killed him? He was found hanging on a noose. Is it a suicide and murder is too farfetched an idea?

Ruby Gupta’s novel A Degree in Death is set in Mussoorie, a beautiful hill station in the north-west of India. The events in the story unfold at the campus of MIST (The Modern Institute of Science and Technology), an apt name for any grand institution to harmonize itself with the misty landscape of Mussoorie. MIST is situated in the sleepy small town of Dehradun, in Mussoorie.
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A boy is murdered at the college hostel and A Degree in Death is about the events that follow this murder. A parallel investigation takes place under the head of the research department, Professor Shantanu, an intelligent teacher, and an avid researcher.

Ruby Gupta is Professor and Head, Humanities, at a renowned institute. She is the author of the popular novel Maya as well as a critique on Khushwant Singh’s fiction. Ruby Gupta’s academic experience is clearly reflected in A Degree in Death. Most of the characters, including the protagonists belong to the college campus, which is typical of any other college campus in the country.

Ruby Gupta’s treatment of the events inside the college campus becomes a hilarious reflection of the situation of higher education sector in India. A Degree in Death can be called a an academic thriller, however, more than the thriller element, what lured me into the book was the language and narrative style of the author.

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The language of A Degree in Death is lucid and objective. The objectivity in the narrative style keeps the reader disengaged from all the characters. A Degree in Death also keeps the flavor of ‘academic English’. An occasional word or phrase would pop-up, and it will take you into one of those classrooms you had been as a graduate scholar, like nicknames for teachers for example. However, the uniqueness of A Degree in Death is in presenting the events and people in front of the reader like in a movie screen.

A series of murders occur after the first death of the boy, and this rattles the peace and complacency of the institution. The investigation police conducted is not mentioned in the novel at all. Instead, Professor Shantanu’s efforts to solve the crime take the dais. A few students help him in this. Demise befalls them too.

What makes A Degree in Death different from a regular murder mystery is its scathing criticism of the academic world. The novel points towards the ridiculously self-important academic system and the bright students who are pitted against this reality of make-belief education. The result from this paradox is resentment that breads its own offspring through warped mass imaginations and spreading of social misconduct. The imaginary college and its academic circumstances are a mirror reflection to the educational blunders we see in modern India. A Degree in Death has its forefinger pointed at this reality, and thus the work of art comes to terms with being a social criticism.
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The murder mystery paves the background for this social introspection that is satirical and at the same time in conjecture with the needs of the novel in order to play the comic relief for the grim events that would unfold at the passing of time. However, if someone points a finger at the integrity of the story, it may not be baseless. Detective stories, crime novels, and thrillers often rely on well-planned and foolproof plots. They are the backbone and blueprint of building up a tightly winded and successful thriller. The ‘plot’ is the major ingredient of any page-turner. In A Degree in Death, on one or two occasions, the plot reveals its vulnerability. However, the author’s ingenious ability to take the tale through surprising twists and revelations safes the novel from harm.    

If you are a fan of the ‘Indian English’ genre, then A Degree in Death is the next book you should try. Ruby Gupta’s language is original and unpretentious. The objective style of storytelling seems to be a style she is working on to develop. In that case, I wish her all success.

A Degree in Death is published by Alchemy Publishers, in 2012, and is moderately priced.

Post Postum: A surprising Indo-China-Tibet issue is raised in the novel, at first seemingly unrelated, although only to confer to the ongoing chain of events, later. 

About Anu Lal:

Anu Lal is the author of Wall of Colors and Other Stories. He lives in Kerala, South India. He blogs at The Indian Commentator 
You can catch up with him in Facebook too.      


M Ghalib said…
At last I have come across a gripping murder mystery by an Indian writer!

From page one I was hooked and could not stop reading till the very end. The plot's twists and turns had me in a thrall. I kept on suspecting various people to be the murderer, but the ending was totally unexpected!

Great writing, simple language and fantastic story. A must read for all!!!
After a few pages, you really can guess the murderer. With the author trying to force fit the Tibetan stories, even the reason for the murders is somewhat obvious or atleast one can link them.
Also the printing of the book is bad. When there is a change in the narrative, there is no demarcation. I had to go back to the previous sentence to understand that the "scene" had changed.
Thanks for sharing such a great read. It is really interesting.
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Viaje de alma said…
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Tempo Travller said…
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