Part crime thriller, part noir comedy and part travelogue through Bangalore’s underworld.
Rhythm is everything in Mr. Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru, Zac O’Yeah’s new novel that is part pulpy crime thriller, part noir comedy and part travelogue through Bangalore’s underworld.
O’Yeah, born in Sweden, now lives in Bangalore. The author turns these unusually juxtaposed geographies to his advantage: not only does he retain the fresh viewpoint of the-outsider-looking-in; equally, as a resident, he has discovered for himself, the sound and pulse of the city.
The eponymous hero, Mr. Majestic, is Hari, a small-time conman operating chiefly in the “down-market, bad-character” area of C.D. Road in Bangalore. Also known as Harry —“as in Potter, but better” — his newest avatar is as Internet conman Director Bongjee. In his particular refinement of the Nigerian 419 email swindle, star-struck hopefuls are lured into signing up for a non-existent school to stardom in Bollywood.
One such is the missing Madhuri, who had travelled from the U.S. to India in search of Hari/Director Bongjee’s fictitious star-maker school. Ironically, it is Hari himself who is employed to track down the missing girl by Jane, a chain-smoking, well-heeled foreigner. Hari dutifully falls in love with Madhuri, on the strength of her bikini-clad picture.
In Hari’s books, “scamming people online seemed a neat and easy job compared to running around in the heat and dust chasing tourists while being chased by the police”. As it turns out, it’s this virtual fiddle that gets Hari into trouble in the real world.
The novel opens on “the worst day” of Hari’s life, which begins when a scarily muscled hoodlum comes looking for “Director Bongjee” at the Internet café at Puncherwallah Complex out of which Hari runs his scams. Soon he acquires — among other misfortunes — rather too many heavies out to do him serious bodily harm.
Hari’s roller-coaster ride — well-oiled with hooch, greasy non-veg and crazy autorickshaw drivers — zings briskly between five star hotels and filthy prisons; Ulsoor Lake and Koshy’s Parade Café; uncovering a porn industry and disguising himself beneath a burqa (“hundred and ninety-nine per cent life insurance warranty comes with this”).
Adventures en route include the acquisition of Underdog, a pet of dubious genetic history who looks more rodent than canine, setting in motion a miracle along the lines of the Turin shroud, and de-nosing a thug by cutting off the appendage in question.
The author is mostly in control of all this over-the-top material. The escapade has edge — people die nasty deaths — yet when the ugliness gets too menacing, O’Yeah knows how to pull it back with quirky wit. If, at times, the non-stop capers begin to feel exhausting, mostly they work as page-turners.
The broad-stroke cameos that flesh out the narrative are entertaining, such as drunken Uncle Mamool, Sub-inspector Pushpa, Doc who runs the Cybercafe and porn DVD vendor Triplex. Or there is Pandit Pandit, the astrologer who knows the value of vaguely threatening prophecies — “There seems to be one somewhat serious problem with your stars.”
Hovering over everything is superstar Jagatprasiddha, who may have no speaking lines — he lies in a coma for the most part — but is a tangible presence. As his condition worsens, the city fears that his fans will go on a rampage to vent their grief, and wise shopkeepers take to “Plastering windows with the actor’s portrait” to prevent high glaziers’ bills.
O’Yeah’s slick prose makes for a racy read, an ideal pick-me-up to relieve the tedium of a long journey or miserably hot summer afternoon. But the real fun lies in discovering that Mr. Majestic is an authentic Indian thriller, rather than a Western prototype shoehorned into an Indian setting. It is a masala crime caper, set to the rhythms — that word again — of Indian life, language and geographies.