Walk the seedy and twisted lanes of Mumbai with this collection.
There has been a steady spate of Mumbai-centric books in the past few years and the latest to join the list is Mumbai Noir. Edited by Altaf Tyrewala, the stories in this collection choose to walk the dark, seedy and twisted by lanes of Mumbai that are generally obscured by the bright lights and upright skyscrapers.
This is edgy terrain, one in which geographies, identities and morals dissolve seamlessly. The themes are predictable: drugs, sex, prostitution, eunuch-cop nexuses, confused sexualities and the casualness of brutality and crime. Yet, astonishingly, the collection rises above the monochromatic simply because some stories startle the reader with their starkly unconventional complexions.
A case in point is “By Two” by Devashish Makhija, where the fates of twin brothers, Rahim and Rahman, resonate with the paradoxical nature of life in the teeming metropolis. The unique place of the humble auto-rickshaw in the bigger scheme of things could not have been driven home more exquisitely, as in this story. Another jewel is “A Suitable Girl”, where author Annie Zaidi lays bare the grey ambiguity of Mumbai's soul with languid craftsmanship.
In direct contrast to the thrust of these stories, the sentimental rambling in Abbas Tyrewala’s “Chachu at Dusk” is fuzzy while a sci-fi take on the business of immortality by Kalpish Ratna (“At Leopold Café”) fails to pack the punch that normally characterises the duo of Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed.
In his introduction, the editor skims briefly over terrorism in Mumbai in recent times and juxtaposes it with the lifestyle in ancient Bombay; the average Mumbaikar’s struggle to lead a clean life in the face of so many odds seems to be at the heart of this collection. Tyrewala’s own story, “The Watchman”, about a prediction-prone watchman is a veritable masterpiece. Sonia Faleiro, likewise, gives a graphic description of hijra initiation rites in “Lucky 501”, and succeeds in injecting the lyrical even into the grotesque in her inimitable style.
The stories about an aging mujra girl, hijra-policemen relationships, paedophilia in Mumbai’s backyards, amorous encounters in cyber cafes and neurotic housewives, though beautifully crafted, have a certain staleness about them. Maybe because these themes have been done to death in the past? The scenes conjured are vivid enough though and sure to provoke many a moment of déjà vu for those familiar with the city. Sunlit streets around the Gateway of India, clip-clopping with the last of the horse-carriages, dinghy lanes leading off the Colaba causeway, cramped cyber cafes in the Mahakali area and ‘vegetarian’ buildings inhabited by people of the Jain community... all ring true and are easily identifiable. Jerry Pinto, in “They”, gets a refreshing ‘Marathi manoos-pav-walla’ partnership to try a spot of crime busting and his story drips with Mumbaiyya lingo and a refreshing tapori-ness (if there is such a word!).
The authors who have contributed to this collection hail from various levels of literary achievement. Yet, nothing quite emerges as per expectations. Some of the best known names disappoint and some lesser known writers display the most startling perceptions. As the author list at the end informs, the contributors are either permanent residents or have lived in Mumbai at some time or the other. One wonders if getting a non-Mumbaikar to contribute would have provided the valuable gaze of an outsider…..
Barring a couple of indifferent offerings, this is a very precious collection. All the ingredients necessary to make the cauldron contents masaledar are present here and, added to that, a bitter aftertaste that lingers long after the book is done with. There is blood, gore and expletives galore and nearly 300 pages of uninterrupted white noise. And yet, if one takes the time and the effort to read between the lines, one might even chance upon that odd moment of silence.
Mumbai Noir; edited by Altaf Tyrewala, HarperCollins, Rs. 350