Bombay Belly

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Mumbai Noir gives grimy glimpses but doesn’t quite strip the city to its grit, says Sanjay Sipahimalani

Crime and the city Altaf Tyrewala
Crime and the city: Altaf Tyrewala

WRITERS THRIVE on decay: fiction’s fertile ground is one of confusion, chaos and conflict. The current state of Mumbai, then, ought to provide rich pickings, especially when it comes to the noir genre. Some of the 14 stories in Mumbai Noir — part of the series by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books — live up to the task of mirroring urban bleakness; many others are tepid. Such patchiness threatens to capsize this noir’s ark.

What’s on offer is some romanticising and nostalgia, much obsession with the aftermath of terrorist attacks and the requisite dose of seediness. In his introduction, Tyrewala mentions “the restraints set by the noir genre, which stipulates, among other things, an unflinching gaze at the underbelly, without recourse to sentimentality or forced denouements”. Sentimentality and a forced denouement are, however, what mar the very first story, Riaz Mulla’s Justice, a story about minorities and ordinary men and women affected by terrorism.

Appropriately enough, deadbeats, sex and decadence are on parade in Avtar Singh’s atmospheric Pakeezah, about a young man’s swift slide into debauchery among the dance bars and underworld of the city. Abbas Tyrewala’s Chachu at Dusk shares some of these qualities — but despite its flair, it loses itself in nostalgia. With its unlikely grafting of Raymond Chandler onto low-life Mumbai, Ahmed Bunglowala’s Nagpada Blues is cheeky and likeable, but strictly speaking is more hardboiled than noir. You could say the same of Jerry Pinto’s They, which also has the not inconsiderable merit of using the Bambaiya patois effectively.

Mumbai Noir Ed by Altaf Tyrewala HarperCollins 288 pp; Rs 350
Mumbai Noir, Ed by Altaf Tyrewala HarperCollins 288 pp; Rs 350

Of course, eunuchs put in an appearance too, with both Smita Harish Jain and Sonia Faleiro basing their stories on their world. It’s the latter’s that stands out for its observed, intimate detail. Elsewhere, though, the writers get the atmosphere down pat, they don’t make their protagonists play too much of a role in arriving at the denouement. In R Raj Rao’s TZP, for example, about a gay professor’s dubious liaisons and run-in with the law, the said professor stands by while the police complete the investigation.

There are noteworthy stories here, but whether they can be classified as noir is a moot question. Annie Zaidi’s chilling A Suitable Girl, about a single woman and her stalker, shows a deft handling of two points of view. Altaf Tyrewala’s fatalistic The Watchman, about a security guard’s paranoid obsession, has a jagged prose rhythm well-suited to its subject. And Namita Devidayal’s The Egg, about a south Mumbai housewife with a mood disorder and her curmudgeonly cook, evokes the protagonist’s claustrophobic circumstances with a sure hand.

Otto Penzler, editor and owner of New York’s Mysterious Bookstore, said of the characters of noir fiction that they’re “dark and doomed — they are losers, they are pessimistic, they are hopeless”. Such traits — and the nihilism and cynicism associated with the genre — appear only in bits and pieces in Mumbai Noir.

sipahimalani@gmail.com

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