Monday, April 9, 2012

Big City Blues

A condensed version of this appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.

MUMBAI NOIR Ed. Altaf Tyrewala

Writers thrive on decay. Fiction's fertile ground is one in which things are out of whack, giving rise to confusion, chaos and conflict. As such, the current state of the city of Mumbai ought to provide rich pickings, especially when it comes to the noir genre. Some of the 14 stories in Mumbai Noir – a part of the series by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books live up to the task of mirroring urban bleakness; many others, however, are tepid and underworked. Such patchiness threatens to capsize this noir’s ark.

What’s on offer here is some romanticizing and nostalgia, much obsession with the aftermath of terrorist attacks and the requisite dose of seediness. The cynicism and jadedness that defines the genre: not so much. 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; however, though not without a certain flair in the telling, it manages to lose itself in mists of 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.

In other stories, 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’, about a gay professor’s dubious liaisons and run-in with the law, the said professor stands by while the police complete the investigation, with an ending that can be seen coming from a long distance away. In Smita Harish Jain’s ‘The Body in the Gali’, about a police officer investigating a colleague’s killing, there are effective scenes set among the world of eunuch prostitutes, but  the final realization dawns with something as simple as cleaning out the dead policeman’s desk. When it comes to eunuchs, Sonia Faleiro’s unsettling ‘Lucky 501’, about the community welcoming a teenager into their tribe, is stronger in observed, intimate detail.

There are other 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, demonstrates, among other things, a deft handling of two points of view. Altaf Tyrewala’s fatalistic ‘The Watchman’, about a security guard’s paranoid obsession, has a pleasing, jagged prose rhythm well-suited to its subject. Namita Devidayal’s ‘The Egg’, about a south Mumbai housewife with a mood disorder dealing with her curmudgeonly cook, evokes the protagonist’s increasingly claustrophobic circumstances with a sure hand. And Paromita Vohra’s ‘The Romantic Customer’, about a cyber-cafĂ© employee’s incipient love affair, is impactful for its open-endedness and portrayal of characters who are neither black nor white, just doing what they need to do to get by.

Otto Penzler, editor and owner of New York’s Mysterious Bookstore, once said of the characters of noir fiction that they’re “dark and doomed – they are losers, they are pessimistic, they are hopeless”. Unfortunately, such traits – and the nihilism and existentialism also associated with the genre – are present only in bits and pieces in Mumbai Noir.

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