Creating mayhem in Mumbai | Review of Tanuj Solanki’s noir thriller ‘Manjhi’s Mayhem’

Tanuj Solanki new crime thriller ‘Manjhi’s Mayhem’ makes one of society’s ‘extras’, a Dalit, the prime mover

Updated - December 29, 2022 05:54 pm IST

Published - December 29, 2022 04:52 pm IST

In Manjhi’s Mayhem, Tanuj Solanki brings freshness to the noir thriller genre through a politically charged sensibility that is all his own. 

In Manjhi’s Mayhem, Tanuj Solanki brings freshness to the noir thriller genre through a politically charged sensibility that is all his own.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

In India, genre fiction in English has been dominated by foreign authors. Be it crime, romance, thrillers or horror, the bestselling names are typically American or British. In recent years, one genre where sub-continental authors have made their mark is historical fiction — or at least a uniquely Indian sub-variant of it characterised by a ‘masala mix’ of history, mythology, fantasy and allusions to contemporary events. Buoyed by the mainstreaming of Hindutva, a rash of action-packed novels with gods and goddesses or Hindu kings and queens as protagonists have tasted commercial success.

In a publishing ecosystem with a marked preference for non-fiction, these seem to be almost the only ‘safe bets’, apart from those produced by writers with some literary pedigree. Against this background, a new title that not only steers clear of the tried-and-tested Hindu mythology route but also takes on a traditional genre — crime fiction — and tries something different is welcome news.

Mysteries and the metropolis

Tanuj Solanki is a pulp fiction writer haunted by literary aspirations, and in a good way. His aim, however, is not so much to force literary depth into genre fiction as to bring freshness to it by other means. In Manjhi’s Mayhem, a noir thriller, he does this thematically and through a politically charged sensibility that is all his own.

The hero, or rather the anti-hero, is a Dalit migrant worker who has fled to Mumbai from his village in Uttar Pradesh. After the usual struggles of living on the footpath and working as a delivery boy, he lands a job as a security guard at a cafeteria in Fort. Across the street from the café is a restaurant where Santosh, also a migrant from UP but a Brahmin, works as a hostess.

She presents Manjhi with a strange request, setting off a chain of events involving murder, seduction, lies, broken noses, and a MacGuffin in the form of an elusive bag of money. Having the story unfold as a first person narrative allows Solanki to explore the injustices and hypocrisies of a society divided along caste and class from the vantage point of the marginalised — especially in a setting where, it is often claimed, caste is not really a factor: the metropolis.

Manjhi’s Mayhem
Tanuj Solanki
Penguin Random House

For instance, the titular character, Sewaram Manjhi, who hails from a family of manual scavengers, is able to get a job as a security guard only with the help of a fake Aadhaar card that enables him to assume the identity of a Jat. With Manjhi, Solanki makes one of the ‘extras’ the prime mover. He is a Dalit who sees and acts, as opposed to being seen and having things done to him.

Language of realism

The language divide, too, gets foregrounded. The novel opens with the persona of Manjhi stating bluntly: “None of this happened in English. English is not the language in which life runs for most people in this country. It all happened in a mix of Hindi and Marathi…”. The prose is sprinkled with Hindi — words like chutiya, manhoos, bhadwa — where the English equivalent would kill the flavour, if not actively mislead. Not only does this create an atmosphere of gritty realism, it also brings alive the Mumbai vibe, which you instinctively expect as the prose evokes a cityscape of caste-coded residential buildings, blue and white air-conditioned taxis, pav bhaji stalls, and the brutal competition for wind-facing seats on the local train.

As with any action hero, Manjhi’s preferred mode of problem-solving involves fists. It helps that Solanki does violent sequences well. But is violence the only answer to injustice? Is it the best way to reclaim your dignity in a society engineered to deny it? In the world of crime thrillers, the answer is: yes, obviously! So sit back and enjoy the potboiler Solanki has crafted not just with skill but also heart.

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