Is this the one, the one every publisher and bookseller and reader has been waiting for? For close to two decades now, the Indian book business has been looking for the homegrown crime series that will divert a readership hooked successively to British, American, Scandinavian and now Japanese writers for tales of dark obsessions, undetected derangements, inscrutable murders. In the meantime, they’ve discovered mythologicals that spin off innumerable sequels, romance trilogies that claim to map the millennial mind and stillborn thrillers.
For the never-say-die fan of commercial fiction unwilling to give up on either intelligence or literary merit, however, the spoils have been rather meagre when it comes to the crime genre. And that’s a phenomenon worth considering.
The popular theory deems that the best crime fiction is born in ordered societies (like those mentioned above) where individual pathways of expression are limited and repression finds sublimation in unimaginable violence—for the fictional protagonist as much as the real-life reader—and there is the reassurance of a law-abiding community to return to once you’re done with the unsettling criminal actions.
Cut to India. In a single day’s newspapers in Bengaluru, I read about a 10-year-old sacrificed to cure a paralysed man, a bunch of youths who killed a schoolboy for conversing with a girl, a teenager promised food and raped in an eucalyptus grove and—the ultimate new south Indian crime—a stabbing involving two “techies” and a “rowdy”. The most lurid writerly imagination could not hope to match up to our macabre morning reads. Such brave authors who have attempted to take on the challenge have mostly used a comic interface—Zac O’Yeah’s sparkling Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru (the sequel didn’t live up to expectations), Aditya Sinha’s recent The CEO Who Lost His Head, full of industry innuendo and the memorable Mona Ramteke—to decrypt India’s bizarre depths.
And then comes Jerry Pinto, possibly the closest Mumbai has to a literary hero. His last (and first) novel was the sublime Em And The Big Hoom (it prompted me to write the only fan letter of my life) but his backlist also includes poetry, biographies, essays, children’s fiction and translations from Marathi. To crown that glittering career, a murder mystery—really? That too, a whodunnit, arguably the lowest form of the genre?
Once you’re over the initial surprise, though, crime can seem to be a genre tailor-made for Pinto. Even a passing acquaintance with his oeuvre reveals passions that segue perfectly with the concerns of the modern crime novel: Chief among these are a sense of place, an unerring ear for dialogue and language, an acute assessment of character-play and an empathy vast enough to embrace both the subaltern and the mainstream.
The two bookend Murder In Mahim, a fearless tightrope walk between the middle-classness of voluntarily retired journalist Peter Fernandes and his school buddy Inspector Jende (who calls him Pittr which, I’m assured, is as Mumbaiyya as it gets) on the one hand, and the invisible underclass on the other. One member of the last goes and gets himself murdered, literally, in the men’s toilet at Matunga railway station. His body is slashed open and a vital organ is missing; despite that, there’s a beatific expression on his face.
Who is Proxy—as the deceased is known —what was he doing in the loo (no, the obvious is not the right answer), why does he keep his money rolled up in his sleeves and, most importantly, where does it come from? His death proves to be the loose yarn that unravels a satisfyingly grimy fabric of casual corruption, parental anxieties, middle-class aspirations, urban anger and, underpinning it all, the gay underworld criminalized by the Supreme Court’s 2013 upholding of Section 377.
That said, Murder In Mahim is not quite the perfect literary crime novel. Part of the problem has to do with Pinto’s indulgent handling of some characters—including the city of Mumbai itself, alternately prey and predator, sanctuary and threat—often at the cost of narrative pacing: Though the bodies pile up, Pinto frequently seems less interested in the crimes themselves than in examining their impact on his protagonists. Somewhere, I also sensed a distaste for the blood-and-gore aspect of violence. Consequently, scenes that are set up to be spectacular—two scenes at the police station come to mind—end up a bit anti-climactic, if not anaemic.
A third factor that does the book no favour is expectations. Not only from Pinto as the author of warm, funny, affectionate Em—this book should come with a statutory disclaimer that it is no reprisal of that award-winner—but also Pinto’s own attempts to meet the demands of crime fiction. The twist and the double-reveal, for instance, feel more contrived than organic (also jarring are the various discrepancies in details: The couple of references to Peter as D’Souza and to George Harrison, instead of George Michael, as a celebrity picked up for soliciting sex in a public toilet, are the most flagrant).
A bigger issue, though, is Pinto’s own ambivalence regarding the criminality of the central acts. While Fernandes’ character arc is flawless, his growing sympathies—which are read as Pinto’s—obfuscate the right/wrong divide; the resulting greyness (not undesirable by itself) is further accentuated by the absence of an adequately villainous villain.
Ultimately, Murder In Mahim is better read as a non-crime novel, where a violent death provides for a window into the aftermath of larger decisions. Unfortunately, the catchy title, the blurb on the inside cover and the excerpt at the back preclude that option.