Library Journal (Starred review)
"Most of the 14 short stories in Akashic’s workmanlike Mumbai volume draw inspiration from the criminal networks and the sordid underbelly the city is infamous for . . . Armchair travelers will find plenty of amusement in touring the seedier parts of this island city in perfect safety."
“The fifteen contributors to Mumbai Noir . . . provide a cool composite narrative of a unique human-intensive metropolitan system, whose magnitude, complexity, diversity, and pace can hardly be captured in writing or, for that matter, any other medium. [Mumbai Noir is] rich and diverse in character and characterization.”
Rain Taxi Review of Books
Featuring brand-new stories by: Annie Zaidi, R. Raj Rao, Abbas Tyrewala, Avtar Singh, Ahmed Bunglowala, Smita Harish Jain, Sonia Faleiro, Altaf Tyrewala, Namita Devidayal, Jerry Pinto, Kalpish Ratna, Riaz Mulla, Paromita Vohra, and Devashish Makhija.
Bombay’s communal riots of 1992in which Hindus were alleged to be the primary perpetratorswere followed by retaliatory bomb blasts in 1993, masterminded by the Muslim-dominated underworld. Over a thousand citizens lost their lives in these internecine bouts of violence and thousands more became refugees in their own city. In a matter of months, Bombay ceased to be the cosmopolitan, wholesome, and middle-class bastion it had been for decades. When the city was renamed Mumbai in 1995, it merely formalized the widespread perception that the Bombay everyone knew and remembered had been lost forever.
Today Mumbai is like any other Asian city on the rise, with gigantic construction cranes winding atop upcoming skyscrapers and malls . . . Right-wing violence, failing electricity and water supplies, overcrowding, and the ever-looming threat of terrorist attacksthese are some of the gruesome ground realities that Mumbai’s middle and working classes must deal with every day, while the city’s super-rich . . . zip from roof to roof in their private choppers. Abandoned by its wealthy, mistreated by its politicians and administrators, Mumbai continues to thrive primarily because of the helpless resilience of its hardworking, upright citizens.
The stories in Mumbai Noir depict the many ways in which the city’s ever-present shadowy aspects often force themselves onto the lives of ordinary people. . . . What emerges is the sense of a city that, despite its new name and triumphant tryst with capitalism, is yet to heal from the wounds of the early '90s, and from all the subsequent acts of havoc wreaked within its precincts by both local and outside forces.
About the Author
Altaf Tyrewala was born in Mumbai and graduated from Baruch College, New York. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novel No God in Sight, which has been published across the world and translated into several European languages. His nonfiction has been featured in GQ, Tehelka, Mumbai Mirror, Mail Today, and People. He has been awarded the DAAD Artist-in-Berlin literature grant for 2011, and is currently working on his second novel.
Read an Excerpt
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All right reserved.
IntroductionThe Traffic-Choked Accident By The Coast
A boiling July afternoon. A monster traffic jam on Mumbai's tony Peddar Road. My taxi driver peers up through the windshield. Billionaire Mukesh Ambani's twenty-seven-floor home looms over the thoroughfare like a mammoth pile of Lego blocks. The cabbie remarks in the Bambaiya patois, "What building Ambani has made—right on the road. Some terrorist just has to drive by with a rocket launcher and buss!" He glances at me in the rearview mirror with raised eyebrows: khel khatam, game over. Looking through the passenger window, I observe, "Even an AK-47 would do a lot ..." The cabbie is skeptical. "From the road? Angle will be difficult to sustain, saab," he says. "Plus, vehicle will have to go very slow for gunman to do serious damage ..." I look again. The man has a point.
The traffic lets up a bit, but we continue to analyze, without a hint of irony, the vulnerabilities of the Ambani residence. Between 1993 and 2011, Mumbai has weathered eight terror attacks. Its inhabitants—12.43 million according to Census 2011—have become unwitting authorities on all the ways that an ordinary day in the city can turn out to be one's last.
Life in the island city wasn't always so chancy. Until international terrorism cast its vague shadow over the metropolis in the early '90s, the pains in Mumbai's collective neck most often had a face and a fixed address. The city's denizens knew the names and backgrounds of underworld majordomos. They were familiar with the bastions of extremist religious parties. And they tried their best to stay away.
Before the liberalization of India's economy in 1991, perhaps the only thing worth striving for was one's ability to stay on the good side of the law. Mumbai's middle and working classes were easy to recognize back then: they toiled hard, wore polyester, and fantasized about migrating to the West. Their heroic struggle to choose a righteous life over an easy life often invoked the respect of those who had done away with such bourgeois moral anxieties. The outlaw narrator of Abbas Tyrewala's story in this volume reminisces how the bhais of his time never harmed Mumbai's common folk because they were awed by their courage to live honestly and bring up children.
This promise of a "clean life" has driven millions of people over several centuries to abandon India's rural hinterland and throng Mumbai's streets in search of employment and social equality. It helps that under its urban façade, the city comprises numerous villagelike communal ghettos where people of similar religious and caste backgrounds can flock together. In Namita Devidayal's piece, the wealthy, pill-popping homemaker resides in an "all-vegetarian" Jain building, where the appearance of a single nonvegan egg can wreak havoc. Anyone who has gone apartment hunting in Mumbai will testify that the city's communal boundaries are often as impermeable as national borders.
The provincialism dictating who one's neighbors may or may not be doesn't, thankfully, extend to Mumbai's commercial life. When it comes to making money, the city has been by and large blind to caste, class, or creed, exalting productivity and wealth-generation above all else. History has shown that in its unabashed pursuit of profit, Mumbai can also be deaf to considerations of ethics and morality.
Through the early half of the nineteenth century, a large number of local Parsi, Marwari, Gujarati Bania, and Konkani Muslim businessmen were involved in the opium trade, shipping Indian-grown opium out of Bombay to China, in direct competition with the British East India Company, which exported the product out of Calcutta. While millions of Chinese sunk into the despondency of addiction, Bombay's capitalist classes grew staggeringly rich. The success of the opium trade, followed by the cotton boom in the 1860s, sparked the ascension of Bombay from a barely profitable port town to a roaring trade center. Much of the city's infrastructural development, including its lasting social and educational institutions, was paid for with the dirty money of these local businessmen. It is a historical ethical conflict that the city has never quite faced up to.
Over the centuries, crime has remained at the service of commerce in a city that was cravenly capitalist long before the rest of the nation followed suit. If a demand exists—even for something as wishful as the "elixir of youth"—you can bet some enterprising chap in Mumbai will move heaven and earth to fulfill it. Even if it means having to strip human corpses of their testes, as the elixir-peddling hakim does quite profitably in Kalpish Ratna's time-warping tale. In Sonia Faleiro's unsettling glimpse into the city's transgender subculture, death isn't even a prerequisite: the dai earns her keep by relieving sentient (and willing) men of their jewels.
Paisa pheyko, tamasha dekho. Throw the cash, watch the dance. These words from an erstwhile Hindi film song have become the de facto motto of Mumbai. Cash can get things moving in a rusty bureaucracy. Cash can help you get away with murder. Sometimes a little cash can help you save big money.
In Mumbai's dance bars, whole wads of cash must be thrown to get the women moving. Outlawed in 2005, these dens of misogyny and exploitation still manage to scrape through under the euphemistic moniker of "orchestra bars," where the concept remains unchanged: tantalizingly dressed women dance or sing in front of a lusty male audience. No self-respecting tome on Mumbai would be complete without a riff on this seedy city institution. Avtar Singh's story fulfills Mumbai Noir's dance-bar quota. To his credit, Singh infuses genuine romance into an overly romanticized setting.
Like its dance bars, Mumbai too has been heaped with exaggerated depictions in recent decades. The city's chroniclers—its novelists, essayists, poets, journalists, and filmmakers—often seem overawed by the idea of Mumbai, rendering its quotidian realities in brushstrokes of grandiose narratives. What inoculates the stories in this collection from the hyperbole of "maximum city"—that much-abused term coined by the astute Suketu Mehta to describe Mumbai—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. (But not without the courtesy of a glossary of Indianisms, to be found at the back of the book.) When viewed from a plane (or hotair balloon), any metropolis might strike one as jaw-dropping. For a majority of Mumbai's residents, however, the city's overcrowded public transportation and decaying infrastructure fail to provide even the minimum of relief.
Unending traffic. Sparse greenery. Corrupt governance. Mumbai always seems on the verge of a massive breakdown. What keeps the city somewhat peaceful and functioning is the very thing that makes it overwhelming: the population density, which is one of the highest in the world. Mumbai's ever-present multitudes serve as eyes on the streets, pitching in during moments of crises, and at other times inhibiting acts of random violence. This has helped the city earn its reputation of being one of India's safest urban centers.
While Mumbai's civil society is remarkably accommodating to all varieties of lifestyles and individual preferences, perhaps the biggest threat to the city's famed cosmopolitanism comes from its twin banes: Mumbai's ultranationalist groups and its increasingly sectarian police force.
Bombay was officially renamed Mumbai in 1995 when an alliance of these ultranationalist groups controlled the state government. The renaming was meant as a symbolic undoing of the country's colonial past. Ironically, other legacies of the British colonial rule were left untouched, such as Mumbai's suburban rail system, its water and sewage infrastructure, as well as its enduring colonial-era architectural landmarks.
In December 1992 and January 1993, during the Hindu-Muslim riots that swept through Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the city's police force, possibly for the first time in its history of serving the city, abandoned neutrality and sided with the Hindus, turning what would have been a routine communal skirmish into a catastrophic minipogrom. For the citizens of the city, and for its minorities in particular, the communalization of the police was the start of Mumbai's darkest chapter. Devashish Makhija provides a heartrending depiction of cynical police officers let loose on Mumbai's religious minorities. In this story, the international war on terror is echoed in Mumbai, turning every Muslim man into a suspect following a bomb blast. Riaz Mulla takes a converse approach, delineating how an ordinary businessman can turn into a bomb-planting extremist. Mulla looks unflinchingly at how events may have unfolded leading to Mumbai's first terrorist attack.
In March 1993, in a misguided attempt to settle the score after the Babri Masjid riots, Mumbai's Muslim-dominated underworld unleashed a series of thirteen bomb blasts throughout the city. The mastermind of these blasts, Dawood Ibrahim, was a Mumbai-born gangster operating out of the Middle East. Two hundred and fifty people lost their lives in the explosions and hundreds more were injured. (Those interested in understanding the often mundane genesis of headline-making terror attacks may look up Anurag Kashyap's award-winning film Black Friday, based on S. Hussain Zaidi's book Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts.)
Since 1993, there have been no further communal riots in the city. Instead, in a kind of outsourcing of violence, Mumbai has been targeted by international terrorists no less than seven times. Each attack jars the city out of its intense commerce-driven routines. But life resumes normalcy within hours, once the corpses and debris have been cleared out and the injured deposited in hospitals. Social commentators accuse Mumbai of a savage sort of indifference. Absolutely nothing seems to affect the city. Or maybe that's a wrong way of looking at things. Maybe Mumbai isn't just one city, but an organic conglomerate of innumerable subcities, each thrumming to its own vibe. A tragedy in one part of Mumbai barely registers elsewhere. People fall off moving trains, bombs erupt in busy bazaars, lives are made and broken in the city's daily flux, and things go on as usual.
Altaf Tyrewala Mumbai, India December 2011
Excerpted from Mumbai Noir Copyright © 2012 by Akashic Books . Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsTable of Contents
Part I: Bomb-ay
“Justice” by Riyaz Mulla (Mahim Durgah)
“The Romantic Customer” by Paromita Vohra (Andheri East)
“By Two” by Devashish Makhija (Versova)
“Chachu At Dusk” by Abbas Tyrewala (Lamington Road)
Part II: Dangerous Liasions
“Nagpada Blues” by Ahmed Bunglowala (Nagpada)
“The Body in the Gali” by Smita Harish Jain (Kamathipura)
“A Suitable Girl” by Annie Zaidi (Mira Road)
“TZP” by R. Raj Rao (Pasta Lane)
“Pakeezah” by Avtar Singh (Apollo Bunder)
Part III: An Island Unto Itself
“The Watchman” by Altaf Tyrewala (Worli)
“Lucky 501” by Sonia Faleiro (Sanjay Gandhi National Park)
“The Egg” by Namita Devidayal (Walkeshwar)
“At Leopold Café” by Kalpish Ratna (Colaba Causeway)
“They” by Jerry Pinto (Mahim Church)