It is generally assumed that detective novels are about the underbelly of a city, with terrible crimes like murders and rapes, or, the underground criminal world with gangsters, godfathers and their molls, or, about mapping the crime-politics nexus in big cities like Mumbai. Sudha Gupta, the private investigator in my detective stories, is an ordinary person who is dealing with human frailties, the politics within apparently happy middle-class families, but also with tenderness, compassion, empathy and strength, which are also a part of this big city. Crimes just happen in her work as a private detective, while she is trying to sort out mundane affairs of people.
Gupta’s Mumbai has young men setting up libraries and tuition classes for children in Dharavi, old and young women who have the courage to make choices in their life and people willing to reach out to each other. It has its share of corrupt politicians, fathers who sexually exploit their daughters and innocent wives who allow it, “Babas” who promise the world, and families that think that a senior citizen who is a woman has no business to take decisions about her life after 60. But there is always a woman or a man with a warm heart somewhere around to sort things out. Mumbai is a city like that. It is a city difficult to dislike.
A friend of mine who has decided to settle down in Canada feels that she can never come back to Mumbai and its crowd, its monsoons, where trees can fall on your head anytime, roads that can cave in or get flooded, and open manholes that can swallow you with no one even knowing. Some may feel that local trains in Mumbai are something designed by the devil himself — the crowds pushing and pulling you, verbal abuses and fisticuffs which are a daily occurrence. The roads have practically no pavements, buildings look ominous, some badly maintained with scaffoldings that never seem to come down.
When you put up a poster anywhere — in a building, subway or a compound wall — saying “Don’t Spit” in three languages, the next minute someone would assume that that is just the place to spew out the tobacco juice in their mouth. It is difficult to see a single wall anywhere without red paan stains in this city of Swachh Bharat. Nor is it easy to totally get rid of open defecation on the beaches. One gets used to seeing bare bums during one’s morning walks along a plastic-strewn beach.
But Mumbai is all this and more. It is one city where there is also warmth, indulgence and empathy. On the Andheri station foot overbridge once, when a crowd of people was walking along two sides of the dividing rails, a man started beating up his wife. She was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and looked educated. Two young men jumped across the rails and went to the other side and not only stopped him, but told him that they will take him to the police. “She is my wife, I can beat her,” he retorted. “Oh really? Try beating her now and see what happens,” challenged the young men. The man finally slunk away. Mumbai is the city where an old woman stretching out in the ladies’ coach if asked if everything is okay would tell you about the surgery she has undergone and about her whole life. Every now and then one would hear about babies having been delivered in a crowded ladies’ coach. Gujarati writer Gita Naik has written a beautiful story about a child being delivered in a VT-bound train in a crowded second class ladies’ compartment. It is a city where a taxi driver may take out a flute and play raag Bhupali for you at a red-light signal or an auto driver from a UP village may sing a song for you from a mythological play he participates in annually. It is a city of many possibilities. It is a city that, in a way, physically liberates you.
This is the city that the private detective Sudha Gupta in my stories lives in and keeps exploring. It is a city throbbing with many different lives, many different thoughts and many different languages to express feelings. It is a city that keeps changing, sometimes bringing out venom and poison hidden in its many arteries, and, sometimes, also honey and milk running in its veins. It is a city with unending stories.