What inoculates the stories in this collection from the hyperbole of “maximum city...," writes Altaf Tyrewala in the introduction to Mumbai Noir, “are 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". Since there are few genres of modern literature more self-regarding than noir, with its lone wolf narrators and oneiric “underbellies", Tyrewala’s definition leaves some room for argument.
Light and shadow: Mumbai Noir mines the city’s underbelly for stories.(Asit Mehta/Wikimedia Commons)
Many of the stories in Mumbai Noir, while escaping the classic constraints of the genre, do indeed display this romanticism fully, and sometimes in ways that are too familiar to be enjoyable: The Mumbai underbelly is not an under-represented subject. There are many rum drinkers and tough talkers to be found here, as well as ex-gangsters, paedophiles, desperate housewives, ethereal bar dancers and two separate instances of ritual castration.
Mumbai Noir: HarperCollins, 274 pages,
What marks these tales as noir, rather than stories about nasty things that happen to Mumbaikars? Mumbai Noir answers this successfully when its best stories (including Tyrewala’s own little time-bomb of a tale about a watchman waiting for an impending death), expand noir to embrace the fears particular to Mumbai, and the voices and accents in which these fears are expressed.
In this respect, the anthology finds some of the city’s most accomplished English-language writers on sparkling form. The duo Kalpish Ratna create an absolute wonder in At Leopold Café, their creepy, madcap time-travelling thriller, in which a young visitor to the famous café finds himself embroiled in a century-old medical mystery. Both Annie Zaidi and Paromita Vohra write beautifully pitched first-person narratives that will be read and reread for their characters. Namita Devidayal’s The Egg may or may not be the first instance in which Mumbai’s sectarian and exclusionary practice of designating buildings “vegetarian-only" has been imagined as a real house of horrors, but it is certainly the most trenchant. And Jerry Pinto’s They is the best story set in a gym we are likely to read this year, and possibly ever.
On balance, with more delightful stories than dull ones, Mumbai Noir pulls ahead of several of its siblings in Akashic Books’ urban noir series (of which it is the newest; the series began with Brooklyn Noir in 2004). There’s more typical Mumbai than typical noir here, but enough to entertain even readers sick of reading about both.