This volume has four separate, apparently unconnected graphic short stories set in Mumbai that are tied to each other by the ageing, sagging figure of Inspector Dev. The first word that comes to this reviewer’s mind is atmospheric—these stories are a visual feast.

This is as it should be; their subject is Mumbai, arguably the most richly visualized city in our popular culture.

So what does Black Mumba add to the mix? Indeed, it’s beyond stylish. But does it transcend cliché? What does it tell us about Mumbai that we don’t already know?

Start with the name. It is, of course, a reference to Mumba Devi, the deity of the Koli community. This is self-reflectively a noir imagining, all interior anguish and jaded policemen and urban underbelly. Even the argot is very “American crime": “first response", “what’ve we got", “big guy", etc. What’s most interesting is the lack of any actual crime that the police are engaging with. They’re surrounded by it, even ground down by it, but in no story does a crime actually occur.

To some, this may be a drawback. I found it a sophisticated way of entering and examining urban darkness, where dank criminality is always present, even if it is only ever a suggestion. This is how the urban middle class relates to violent crime, after all: as voyeurs for the most part. But Dev isn’t one. He is a participant, and the complexity of his relationship with his dark city is the engine of this book.

The first story, It’s A Wonderful World, introduces Dev on a wet night, his dispatch radio switched off inside his car. He is contemplating suicide. This is rendered in an almost hyper-real way, the trope of Mumbai in the rain finding expression in a world whose certainties are dissolving down the sides of this beaten man’s car. It’s an affecting, immersive read, not least because he eventually uses his bullet to put something else out of its misery.

It works beautifully as noir; we are all united in that congregation whose communion is misery. But from this extremely promising beginning, the book doesn’t quite kick on. Put it down to ambition. As long as the creators stay with atmosphere, the touch is light and sure. But as soon as they want to have their say, things begin to sag slightly.

The next three stories make their way through the docklands, the mill area, and a place that I conjecture must be close to the sea because of the set-up to the story. The set-ups themselves are superb. Think contracted rat killers, maddened body-part collectors, ageing alleged witches. So why don’t they work as well as the first?

Perhaps the issue is expense; this volume has been crowdfunded. Is there a touch of being “rushed to market"? Maybe it’s the very wealth of creativity so many names on the ticket represent; a problem of plenty. But I don’t think the latter’s the problem. Each story has its own individual visual savour. My issue is with how discursive stories Nos 2, 3 and 4 are.

This is a graphic collection. Let the pictures speak. But because of the urge to explain, even the pictures become portentous, even pompous. In an otherwise superbly rendered rodentization of the Mumbai verse in the second piece, there is a digression to the Emergency.

This need to instruct and inform doesn’t ruin the volume, but it does detract from it. And it doesn’t help that the usual Mumbai tropes are trotted out here as well. Even the vultures from the Parsi Tower of Silence make an appearance. And really, does the femme fatale, that is the city, need to go from beautiful to old and ugly? Was that older settlement uniformly kind to her inhabitants? Is the one we know not still a locus for the aspirations of millions fleeing worse lives elsewhere?

But even here, there is beauty. As Dev exits the history lesson that is the final chapter and sits down by the seaside—well, naturally—he tells us of his first kiss. The city looms. The implication is clear.

It’s tempting—and most often erroneous—to think of a protagonist as a placeholder for his creators. Here, though, I think it is merited. This book is a love letter to that most difficult of cities. Even with its failings, Black Mumba is a worthy addition to the literature that has engaged with Mumbai.

This is a review of a digital version of the book. The hardcover, a crowdfunded initiative, will be in print soon. Follow its progress on Blackmumbacomic.com.

Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis.

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