Tuesday, December 18, 2012


About the Noir fiction, the well-known American publisher and editor, Otto Penzler says, 'Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with.' In other words, noir fiction can be defined as a subgenre of crime fiction which is characterized by its cynical characters, the unsentimental depiction of violence and sex and the bleak denouements. In the recent years, Brooklyn based Akashic Books has popularized this genre by bringing out the series of noir short stories. Each anthology in this series is based in a particular city and explores the dark underside of that city. Earlier we had Brooklyn Noir, London Noir, LA Noir, Chicago Noir, Paris Noir, etc. And the accent of India on the horizon of the global economy inspired the publishers to add the Indian cities to their list and Delhi Noir was published in 2009. And, now, it is the turn of Mumbai. 

Edited by author Altaf Tyrewala, the opening story of this anthology, 'Justice', is about a man called Ashagar Khan, who has been convicted by the court for his involvement in a bomb blast. He has committed that crime to seek some sort of revenge for losing almost everything in a communal riot. The author has weaved the narrative quite credibly telling us how a single act of violence can start the chain reactions of violence and counter violence. But, he is not able to carry the story till the end and the denouement appears to be hurriedly made up. It also breaks the basic principle of noir fiction by having a sentimental ending. Then, there is a story of twin brothers, both auto drivers, titled 'By Two'. The brothers suffer for being Muslims (at that poor Muslims) in this post 9/11 and post 26/7 world. The twins are tortured by the police each time a terrorist act happens in the city. The author, Devashish Makhija, has been able to invoke the sense of horror in readers: What if I were in their places? The descriptions of police brutality and helplessness of the main characters are heart -rending. True to the noir genre, the protagonists of this story have no chance. This is a though-provoking and probably the best story of the collection which raises questions about the way we are fighting terrorism. There are a handful of extremists who perpetuate this kind of atrocities on the masses and then there are innocent victims of these attacks. But there are even larger numbers of people who are neither involved in terrorism nor are direct victims of terrorist attacks but have been suffering more than the victims. They are the scapegoats. It has become customary on part of the police and intelligence agencies to pick up and torture Muslim youths (tribal youths in case of Maoist extremism) when terror strikes the country. The twins in this story, in short, are the victims of the shortcuts taken by the biased law enforcing agencies.

Later, two interesting stories take us to the darker alleys of the ‘Maximum City’ where we are told about the hijra culture, transvestite groups and their involvements in a different kind of flesh trades. The first one, Corpse in the Gali by Smita Harish Jain, is so stark in its description of the process of a man being initiated into Hijra community that it might induce nausea in the readers.  Here the writing is very powerful and Smita is a talent to watch out for. Another tale about the Mumbai Hijra Culture, Lucky 501, by Sonia Faleiro is equally impressive.

In The Watchman by Altaf Tyrewala , a guard has an intuition that somebody in the housing society he guards, is going to die. And that troubles him so much that he begins to behave irrationally. This simple but fascinating story has grave and serious underlying meanings. It symbolises the restlessness and uncertainty of the megapolis life. On the other hand, Chachu at Dusk by Abbas Tyrewala is a sentimental journey of a former Mafiosi in to the old world of smugglers and bhais. The protagonist in this story reminisces about his golden days when even underworld had some semblance of ethics and principles. Though beautifully written, it hardly fits into the category of the genre of noir stories.

Besides all these, there are many more stories, each of them confiding some dark secrets about Mumbai to their readers. Some stories, four to be exact, disappoint but the rest are decent offerings. The editor could have been a bit more discriminnating while selecting the stories for this anthology.

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