Murder in Mahim
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger. 2017
224 pp | ₹ 499 (HB)
Of Mumbai, Crime, and Tribalism
Slightly irked and quite amazed at the intricately latticed theme work at play in Salman Rushdie’s avant garde opus, Midnight’s Children (1981), a young woman questioned the author at one of the book reading sessions:
“Fundamentally, what’s your point, Mr. Rushdie?”
Pat came the reply- “Do I have to have just one point?”
With no comparison to Midnight’s Children but drawing succour from Rushdie’s above quoted words, I bring to the table another text whose narrative is woven around myriad themes. Sahitya Akademi Award (2016) and Windham Campbell Prize winner- journalist, writer and translator Jerry Pinto’s recent work, Murder in Mahim (2017), though a subtly layered work, and an easy read, pitches in a multitude of themes. At once, a book about familial ties and parental anxieties; a social criticism of Mumbai with crime belching out from its nadir; a narrative of rage for our society’s deep-seated heteronormative orientations and the arcane Section 377 that criminalises homosexuality. And above all these, an elegy for the pervasive tribalism- which simply defined is a state of being organized in tribes based on similarities of race, religion, socio-economic standing, ideology, and sexual orientations et al. The destructive tribalism while it fosters loyalty for one’s own tribe; in its irrationality encourages strong negative feelings for people outside the tribe. Peter Fernandes, a character in the novel sallies forth at the desolation experienced by a pariah, and the pronto pace adopted by societies to exclude: “It is only when you find yourself outside that you know that there is a fence and you had once been inside it.”
The megapolis Mumbai comes along as a living entity in the novel, unfolding its contrasting twin realities with images of glitter and grimace. Mumbai- a city of strangers that anonymises, and a land of inequalities that breeds ‘under socialised individuals’ who due to lack of binding social support systems, an overwhelming sense of deprivation, stifled creativity and bruised adaptability are promptly pushed towards the margins of criminality. A society can nurture or entrap an individual’s persona, with social relationships and surrounding culture having a strong bearing on an individual’s psyche. Enlightenment thinker John Locke’s “Tabula rasa” (blank slate) hypothesis and Eugenicist, Francis Galton’s “Nature versus Nurture” postulation certifies this. The oxymoronic singularity of Mumbai, featuring the grime beneath the glitter, and darkness uncoiling from the light, is well deciphered by Pinto:
Bombay doesn’t do night. The sun falls into the sea but darkness doesn’t stand a chance. Every attempt it makes to swallow up the city is defeated by a million neon eyes that open and blink as evening comes; and by the glare of natural gas burning beyond the eastern harbour, illuminating the hill the children call ‘Giant’s Grave’. Each evening, darkness struggles for footholds and hidey holes....Darkness will shelter the hunter tonight.
The readers grapple with images from the dark belly of the city, where poverty flourishes inside the facade of dilapidated chawls, with residents living in overcrowded, ill-ventilated and unhygienic conditions, being denied even the basic facility of potable water, struggling through undignified lives as they queue up outside the communal bathrooms. In variance to this the city comforts with the cool breath of the sea running across it, the fragrantly airy parks laid with red mud and trodden sonchafa flowers (magnolia champaca). The novelist- a Mumbaite delineates with exactness the scents and smells of the city: “The smell of jaggery and spiced cashews from the Mangalore shop. The gummy reek of a jackfruit cut open by the Bihari vendor. The heady scents of incense and ghee and marigolds from the Saptakoteshwara Temple. The sharp tang of Gauri, the black cow tethered outside the temple.” The writer takes us on a guided tour to some touristy and non-touristy landmarks of Mumbai.
Then the much talked about night life of the city - taking in its fold, the dimly-lit lounges to panoramic sea view, rooftop bars serving intoxicating cocktails, swinging music to dance and cavort. But this is not the realm that Jerry Pinto is interested to zoom out for his readers, instead he digs deep at the gay subculture thriving at the toilets of railway stations, on the trains, and few other hotspots like Pattharwadi on Marine Drive. And how all this transpired to be a merchandise nexus between the corrupt police cops, and boys from lower economic strata, as well as few other pushy and luxury-driven ones who went in for easy money. The cops sent in secluded toilets, well endowed boys, in ludicrous attires, and gym-toned bodies, to lure “cottaging” (men soliciting men in public toilets) men in these channels. With homosexuality being criminalised, therein begins the vicious cycle of blackmailing; patently the men in khaki taking a lion’s share of the bounty, and boys settling down with the refuse. Murder in Mahim traces how greed, lust; and the extortionee’s indignation in the above situation betide serial crimes in these foetid places.
In the novel, retired journalist and police accomplice Peter Fernandes takes a jibe at the ingrained homophobia behind a society’s heteronormative orientations, which stigmatises homosexuality and accepts heterosexuality as the only social norm: “Was this all that civilization amounted to? That we were all so stuck in a certain way of looking at sex and age and class that anything outside it may be reviled openly. Was this why Sunil had been reluctant to reveal his leanings?”
Peter Fernandes and his wife Millie make an endearing couple who are earnestly god-fearing, and self-effacing. The open-minded duo that converses by citing anecdotes from literary works in English is far from being outmoded. Yet, the couple is in a helluva of turmoil when they sense that their only son Sunil might be a homosexual. They are dreadful of the rejections and reactions they are bound to face at the hands of their neighbours and parish in the above situation. And on the emotional plane, they feel drained as they no longer can pin their hopes of having their own grandchildren. With options of artificial insemination, surrogacy, and adoption being gratuitous and inconvenient for many, heteronormative structures become a catch-all alibi for parenthood, raising children and sustenance of human race. Peter and Millie, the doting parents have to literally coerce themselves through their grief and social pressures to eventually surmise: “It is his life and his money and his body. He must remain our son.” While the same comes in an unchallenging, and trouble-free manner for the TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) fostered Sunil, who has an unambiguous agenda regarding this: “I only hope that if I ever have a child, he’ll have the guts to tell me and I’ll have the ears to listen.”
Just like Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom (2012) created an impetus with its profound insights around issues of mental illness, Murder in Mahim proposes to counter Balkanisation in all hues- social, economic, sexual, racial, provincial and so forth. For words and books have the power to change us, and an excerpt from Em and the Big Hoom implicitly states this: “I didn't go to bookshops to buy. That's a little bourgeois. I went because they were civilized places. It made me happy there were people who sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote and there were other people who devoted their lives to making those words into books. It was lovely. Like standing in the middle of civilization.”
Murder in Mahim delves furtively into the criminal psyche to assess the temptations and foibles that turn a law-abiding citizen into a criminal. In this matter, Peter seeks assistance from psychiatrist, Dr. Ajit Pitale of the Masina Hospital, who cites ‘a well-developed ego’ and ‘violent rage at being sinned against’, as the grounds which might trigger criminal tendencies in individuals. And for men selling their bodies, the sense of debasement that creeps in on being undervalued gradually, makes them aggressive. As annotates Taxi Taxi, an insider from the Gayland: “So they will put the body on the market because they have seen all those Hindi movies where the shaukeen are willing to pay so much for the fresh maal. Then they find that this is also just a story; the body is also cheap, it doesn’t have that much value. Men who pay like that, pay that much, they don’t fall in love. They want a new body every day, if possible. This is how the poor boys go bad.” Himal, a character from the novel, succumbs to criminality in these challenging times. Inflicted with unconstrained rage, he turns into a serial killer, who murders his brother-in-law, Sooraj Patel for falling prey to the blackmailers, and whiling away the money kept for his mother’s medical expenses, he further murders Proxy, and police cop Durra’s innocent child to avenge his loss. While Unit, another character from the novel, kills to take vengeance for his dear friend Proxy’s brutal murder.
The author mutates a murder mystery into a critique of contemporary society, and the polemical approach, as well as veristic, unadorned, and precise style of narration used in this novel, pervades many Nordic noir novels too. The investigating team of Murder in Mahim- retired journalist Peter Fernandes and Inspector Shiva Jende are ordinary life heroes: mature, warm, level-headed, and deserving of respect for their unruffled dedication to justice, and desire to solve crime; much similar in traits to Kurt Wallander and quite in antagonism to self-proclaiming Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie series, quite renowned for his dramatic denouement.
The novelist portrays many amiable characters, sketches them in details, and with sympathy. One amongst them is the, vivid, full of verve, kaftan-clad, Leslie Sequeira, “the Queen of the Queen of the Suburbs” or “Rani Maa” as Peter’s guide through his journey into Mumbai’s Gayland. Quite in semblance to writer Vladimir Nabokov’s cameo appearance as the very minor character Vivian Darkbloom in Lolita, Jerry Pinto too makes a ‘literary cameo’ in the novel as journalist Jotin Perry (an anagram of author’s name), who wrote a think piece on suicide. The character, while assisting in progression of storyline, extends a sort of personal signature to the story. Though, Pinto is not very charitable in portrayal of Jotin Perry, and he is created more in an exegesis to the rapacious journalists of today, who lack ‘ethical curiosity.’ ‘Ethical curiosity’ in Pintoesque terms involves revamping the naturally evolved function of curiosity to a sublime level, by translating it into an act of empathy.
The fast paced novel serves well the cause, with no meanderings or extraneous material. American novelist, Elmore Leonard hinted in his rules of writing: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Jerry Pinto seems to have espoused this technique.