Mumbai Noir: dark, eclectic tales about the city's thriving underworld
All great metropolises are dark, but each is dark in its own way. The city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), on the west coast of India, is dark because more than half of its inhabitants live and dream in the acute congestion and squalor of slums under the sky of a well-heeled elite, because it was home to a thriving underworld (and still pulses with heists, get-rich-quick schemes and the odd contract killing), and because it is the only Indian city that stays awake all night, as if something runs in its blood that doesn’t anywhere else in a country of more than one billion people.
The darkness extends and deepens through time as much as space. Mumbai is dark because of its colonial history: it was not much more than a fetid swamp before it became a Portuguese outpost and then a thriving trading settlement of the British Empire, and it rose to prosperity in great measure through the export of opium to the Far East. It is dark because of the forms and non-forms of its architecture, with even most of its middle classes crammed into tiny and poorly built apartments or tenement buildings called chawls, from which perch they look down with disgust upon (or sometimes empathise with) the masses who sleep on the pavement each night. It is dark because of its thousands of street children, who learn what the world is by the roadside and exhibit the wisdom and cynicism of adults almost in infancy.
Mumbai is the perfect ground, in other words, for that genre of literature – one that owes as much to films as books – called noir: a literature of grittiness, exhaustion, disillusionment, calculation and amorality, of dim light, shrouded rooms, faded colours and clipped language. For many years now the New York independent publishing house Akashic Books has married a placename to the suffix “noir” to dozens of anthologies about the world’s great cities, and now the noir train arrives in Mumbai in the form of a book edited by Altaf Tyrewala, author of the 2005 novel No God In Sight, which is not without its noir elements.
Tyrewala’s team roll their sleeves up and get the blood bubbling and plots unspooling without a moment’s pause. At the head of the queue are Kalpish Ratna, the pseudonym or name-melange of the fiction-writing surgeons Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed. They present an intriguing story called At Leopold Café, set simultaneously in two ages of Mumbai and featuring a physician who promises eternal life through an elixir manufactured from almost unspeakable ingredients.
Bringing the knowledge of one profession to the practice of another, the writers very suavely carry off what one might call a medico-linguistic cool (a skylight glares “like a malignant ocellus”). Again, they bring a fine intelligence to an understanding of genre expectations and conventions, and how these can be both limiting and – if played with, in the same way as the physician Hakim Dehlavi plays with balls – liberating. By writing a story that involves some mind-bending ideas, they release their fictions from the “dirty realism” thought to be native to noir even as they take a full measure of the darkness of the city’s past. In this way they make one of Mumbai’s best-known cafes, Leopold, come alive as something new and strange.
The story that comes closest to classic noir in Tyrewala’s anthology is Avtar Singh’s Pakeezah, which gathers a voyeur’s desire, doomed love, alcoholic mist and reminiscence as well as the city’s secret vortexes of power into an elegant and rueful story about a man who falls in love with a dancing girl who is the mistress of a mafia don. A more comic, domestic vision of noir appears in Jerry Pinto’s They, the story of an old couple shocked by a murder in their area and a police inspector who reconstructs the events of the crime and the motivations of the actors.
“Tell everything you know. I will see what-what to use,” says Inspector Jende in Pinto’s story, and some of the best pleasures of the book are those of idiomatic language – of watching writers who themselves know what-what to use. In Paromita Vohra’s charming The Romantic Customer, the narrator, the manager of a cyber cafe, hears the jawing of a cop and remarks: “His sense of humour was Pvt Ltd: Only Laughs at Own Jokes.” One of the reasons why this joke is funny is because it is so local.
It must not be forgotten that, by jettisoning comforting binaries of good and bad, and in its distaste for narratives of redemption and reform, noir can, through its very amorality, be a moral form. “The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation,” writes James Ellroy, one of the great exponents of the form, in his introduction to the anthology The Best American Noir of the Century. “The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender and systemic corruption. The lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.” Ellroy’s perceptive remarks provide a lens on the failures in Tyrewala’s anthology, which come from those writers who can’t bring themselves to completely inhabit the disillusioned sensibility of noir, or else who bring to their writing a sincerity unleavened by slyness.
Suddenly, doom is not so much fun as embarrassing. Riaz Mulla’s Justice, a story about a man convicted of terrorism who himself had his shop burnt down by a mob, moves along sure-footedly until we suddenly find ourselves wallowing in a mawkish scene where the wives of accused and victim meet on a train and agree to help one another. “As the train stopped,” we are told, “they alighted holding the blind child between them.” They should watch out: they appear to have alighted into a morality tale.
In other stories, the strain evident in the writing suffocates the material. Smita Harish Jain’s The Body in the Gali has no art at all in its laboured descriptions of Mumbai scenes as an inspector drives through the city, nor in the didactic voice-overs of its narrator: “Here, tradition and modernity, fertility and asceticism, excess and poverty lived within the same city limits.” Sentences like these, registering a kind of middle-class surprise at extreme contrasts and speaking the language of journalism or op-eds, are very far from the universe of noir.
But in truth these problems are local not to Tyrewala’s anthology but to much of Indian fiction today. In seeking a mood or world that is specific, they actually achieve a badness that is representative. Abbas Tyrewala’s amateurish Chachu at Dusk is a mess of overstatement and verbiage, trying to summon a mood of nostalgia for a lost world of crime and a critique of the city’s new middle-class from a knot of clichés of language, thought and storytelling. “How did they get it so well behaved? Really, how do you turn Bombay into the least sexy city in the world?” asks the protagonist, a retired gangster called Chachu, but the problem is that even the old Bombay of his memories is not noticeably more enticing. He proves his own irrelevance in the very act of lamenting it.
As with most of the other anthologies in the Noir series, the stories in Mumbai Noir, then, are raw in ways good and bad. Some hum with a feel for the city’s pulse and patter, but others vanish into the very darkness they try to evoke.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the nauthor of the Mumbai novel Arzee the Dwarf.
Updated: July 28, 2012 04:00 AM