Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on A Dead Hand or here for Norma J. Shattuck's review.
Travel writer Jerry Delfont finds himself at loose ends in Calcutta, making speeches at various locations for the American Embassy and trying to fight off "dead hand" - another term for writer's block. His is an extremely bad case, and he wonders if he will ever find a way to write again. Sitting in his hotel room, he receives a handwritten letter from a Merrill Unger, who asks for his time and help with a delicate situation. Although he doesn't know her, hasn't even ever
heard of her, he has nothing else to do and so agrees to meet her.
Mrs. Unger comes to the hotel with her son and his friend, Rajat. At first glance, Delfont sees that she is a wealthy woman who seems to have an air of mystery about her. She seems to fit in with the stereotypes of the colonial ruling class in India. Her problem involves Rajat.
Staying in a local cheap hotel while the Ungers were out of town, he awoke in the middle of the night to find a dead boy lying in the floor. Stunned, he packed his things and ran from the hotel. Now he is unsure what to do or if the police are looking for him. Mrs. Unger requests that Jerry investigate the matter and see if he can determine what has happened, and if the police are
indeed investigating the matter. Delfont is unsure why he has been asked; he is a travel writer, not a detective. But as the meeting goes on, he finds himself charmed by Mrs. Unger, or
"Ma" as she is known to all, and agrees to look into the incident.
As he attempts to discover the truth, he finds himself drawn more and more to Ma,
this woman of means who has chosen Calcutta as her residence. No one seems to know much about her, which is unusual in a former colonial setting where all British and Americans tend to know each other, or at least of each other. Ma devotes her life to the poor children of Calcutta, the beggars and street urchins. She has turned her palatial home into an orphanage for these children, and there is never a shortage of candidates. She brings them into her home to live and educates them, children plucked from pain and misery and given a new lease on life by the Ungers. Much of the mystery about her comes from the fact that she funds this home entirely from her own means, not asking for help from the various social organizations or the local government but using her own wealth and business contacts.
Ma is also a devotee of Indian religion, specifically the goddess Kali. She eats only natural food and that sparingly. She is a master
of Tantric massage and uses this mechanism to introduce Delfont to her beliefs. He is overwhelmed by her personality and the difficulty of finding out anything about her. One minutes he is hopelessly devoted to her; the next he is attempting to break out of her sphere of influence. He is more successful learning about the incident with Rajat.
He learns enough at the flophouse to convince himself that the incident of the
dead boy did occur, although the police were never involved. Delfont is drawn deeper and deeper into the Ungers' world and starts to unravel the mysteries surrounding this powerful, generous woman. As he delves into the mystery, he is unblocked and his writing starts to flow again.
An interesting sidelight is that one chapter features Delfont meeting the author Paul Theroux in Calcutta. He dislikes him on sight and feels that he is pitiless, using others' tragedies to make fodder for his writing. This is a common device of Theroux's books, that
of bringing himself into the action, and usually in a fairly negative viewpoint. The reader feels a frisson of interest from this sudden introduction,
forcing one a step back from the book's action to try to discover why.
As Delfont becomes more involved in Mrs. Unger's life and businesses, suspense builds. Why did she not just go to the police or the Consulate? Why has she chosen Delfont to investigate the matter, and how has she even heard of him or known that he was in Calcutta? Is her selflessness what it seems, or does she use her charity as a cover for more sinister activities?
A Dead Hand
is recommended for all readers, who will be pulled along with Delfont as he starts to uncover the intricate, involved life of this mysterious woman. The reader learns much about modern-day Calcutta, how the culture there works and the part that religion plays in everyday life. Suspense
that starts as a quizzical wondering grows to a stunning crescendo as the plot devolves and the life of the Ungers is revealed. Theroux has created a character in Ma Unger
which the reader will not soon forget.