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February 2, 2013

Notes on 'Mumbai Noir'

Editor : Altaf Tyrewala
Publisher : Harper Collins (India)

Rating : 3.5/5

There has been a steady spate of Mumbai-centric books in the past few years prominent of them being  'The Maximum City', 'Sacred Games' and 'Shantaram'. Edited by Altaf Tyrewala, the stories in this new anthology choose to walk the dark, seedy and twisted by lanes of Mumbai that are generally obscured by the bright lights and upright skyscrapers.

In his introduction to the book, Tyrewala writes that “What inoculates the stories in this collection from the hyperbole of ‘maximum city’... are the restraints set by the noir genre, which stipulates, among other things, anunflinching gaze at the underbelly, withoutrecourse to sentimentality or forced denouements”.

Tyrewala’s claim is not entirely true: There is sentimentality in the book, in the use of ‘Mumbai characters’ like corrupt cops, tough-talking detectives, hijras and dance bar girls, and there are forced denouements as well, when a terrorist’s wife meets a victim, or a depressed housewife snaps. But what is true is that this is an unflinching gaze at Mumbai that makes you, sometimes, flinch. The themes are predictable: drugs, sex, prostitution, eunuch-cop nexuses, confused sexuality and the casualness of brutality and crime. 

There are two stories about hijras in the collection dealt with the same milieu, albeit from divergent perspectives. Two stories also feature dance bars and two stories deal with persecuted Muslim characters. The scenes conjured are vivid enough though and sure to provoke many a moment of déjà vu for those familiar with the city. Like in Jerry Pinto’s ‘They’, a story of the habits and politics of a neighbourhood gym that are uncovered when a gym trainer is murdered. Or Paromita Vohra’s ‘The Romantic Customer’, a first-person narrative of young love and betrayal, set in the ubiquitous cyber café. Tyrewala’s ‘The Watchman’, about a building watchman waiting for an impending death, captures a sense of the irrational fear that can sometimes swamp us in a city where death is ever-present. And then there’s the horror of the home, like in Namita Devidayal’s ‘The Egg’, a satirical tale on what happens with the discovery of a single egg in a ‘vegetarians-only’ building.

At Leopold Cafe by Kalpish Ratna comes as a disappointment from the credible duo and the narrative seems to be straight out of their another book, Quarantine Papers. Ratan-Ramratan story will be difficult to understand for the readers who have not read their earlier work.

There is variety here but that makes the literary quality somewhat erratic. The anthology does, however, succeed in reflecting the dark side of Mumbai with a great deal of authenticity. Don't read with too many expectations, specially if you have read Delhi Noir before.

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