Murder in Mahim
Speaking Tiger Books
Does a writer feel intimidated by the weight of expectations if his last work has been a literary success? Or, does it free him up, allowing him the liberty to try his hand at new things? With Jerry Pinto, whose last novel was the luminous Em and the Big Hoom, the answer seems to point at the latter. What else would explain his foray into an entirely new genre, particularly when his repertoire already includes diverse elements such as poetry, books for children, translations and biographies?
As the title indicates, Murder in Mahim is Pinto’s nod to crime fiction. A young man is found dead in the toilet of the Matunga Road railway station, his body slashed open, a kidney missing. And it’s only the first of several murders that Inspector Shiva Jende and his friend, retired journalist Peter, will come up against in the course of the investigation. Who was this young man, Proxy, and what brought him to his end?
With his principal cast in place, the first thing that Pinto does is to root the plot firmly in the city’s working class and its underbelly. If Peter and Jende are at the upper end of this spectrum, Proxy and his friends are at the bottom, scrabbling to escape into a life of respectability. Pinto underpins this world of desperation and yearning, greed and corruption with the Supreme Court’s upholding of Section 377 in 2013 and how it rendered the homosexual community vulnerable to blackmail and manipulation.
One of the joys of reading Pinto is to savour his nuanced handling of characters. Mumbai, at once indulgent and menacing, becomes a living, breathing entity. “Anyone who has walked into a morning in his city would know that it was the best time of day. The city was about as vulnerable as it could get; it would agree to a compromise, even with the unarmed,” Pinto writes. For someone whose familiarity with the city is limited to touristy landmarks, Pinto’s descriptions (he is a resident of Mahim) — the peace of early morning Shivaji Park, the bustle of Takandas H Kataria Marg as it leads to the Matunga Road station, the darkness of Paththarwadi on the Marine Drive and the self-sustaining ecosystem of Mumbai’s suburban railway network — came like an insider’s guide that one is glad to have unwittingly stumbled upon.
Peter, his wife Millie, and activist son, Sunil — a close-knit family — are fleshed out with just the right amount of heft. The supporting cast — Millie’s cousin Leslie, “Queen of the Queen of the Suburbs”, PT master Pagmat, determined to turn “boys to men” among others — are built up with great care; but it is the wry, incorruptible Inspector Jende who leaves one’s curiosity unsated, possibly because the arc of his character is not mapped out to its potential. Perhaps, that could make a case for a future series, particularly since both Jende and Peter make such a refreshing team.
But, Pinto’s compassion for his characters is also one of the reasons why the story wavers. “Was this all that civilisation 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?” wonders Peter — and, by extention — Pinto, at one point in the novel. It is hard to ignore his tacit sympathy for the underdog, or not be swayed by it. In fact, Pinto seems more invested in investigating the nature of human failings that lead to a moral crisis than in the crimes themselves.
One of the demands of crime fiction is the promise of restoration of order once unimaginable violence has been committed. It’s a reassurance, fragile as it may be, that the world is back to as it should be. But what if the violence is a creation of society (and not a manifestation of some form of pathological disorder), where a victim, pushed to the edge by justice denied, turns perpetrator? In this, Murder in Mahim finds resonance with a large section of Nordic noir, in particular with the cases of the inscrutable Inspector Kurt Wallander, created by the Swedish writer, Henning Mankell.
There are a few other minor flaws, mostly editorial oversights that can be amended in subsequent editions. Peter’s surname is D’Souza in a couple of places and Fernandes elsewhere; Leslie is referred to as both Siqueira and Sequeira, and, most noticeably, the celebrity who was arrested while soliciting sex in a public toilet is named as George Harrison instead of George Michael.
In the hands of observant writers, crime fiction becomes a study of society and its collective failure. To that end, Murder in Mahim is a novel about crime and retribution. But, beyond that, it is a story of rage and sorrow. It is also a tale of family ties, friendship and empathy, those quiet virtues gently ebbing from middle-class life that Pinto is so good at decoding.