Tanuj Solanki is a gifted writer, and with Manjhi’s Mayhem he has given us a well-written noirish crime thriller set in one of Mumbai’s grittier universes. Sewaram Manjhi is the protagonist who is just one step ahead of poverty, straddling the underside of society, and who is not a private detective but a private security guard. He is drawn into danger by a femme fatale named Santosh, who similarly straddles the line between the lower middle class and the darkness beneath it. The only difference is that she is upper caste and he is Dalit, though he poses as a Jat from northern India named Harish Jakhar. By the time she finds out, they have already had their steamy encounter:
“Santosh slapped me hard. It stung.
I didn’t do anything.
‘Bhosdike I’m a Brahmin,’ she said. ‘Jat was still ok. But Dalit? Shouldn’t you have told me earlier?’’’
But this matter is a minor sideshow because Santosh has noticed a public display of his physical courage when he thrashed up three youngsters who were troubling a woman customer at his coffee shop. She first offers him unimaginably unrestrained sex, and then gives him a task that involves explosive violence.
Sewaram must rough up a man named Godse—chuckle, chuckle—who had earlier threatened to throw acid on her face. Violence against women, and that too against his girl: Sewaram has no hesitation in beating the man to a pulp. Except that during this violent encounter, Godse informs him that things are not what they seem to be: the woman he threatened was not Santosh but an “escort” named Pinky. Things are never what they seem to be in the dusk of noir, where sex is the reward for violence.
Suffice it to say that the rest of the novel is Sewaram’s journey, filled with more maara-piti (fisticuffs), to unravel the real reason behind Santosh’s order to beat up Godse. It involves a crooked banker, a past-his-muscle-prime property dealer, an out-of-sight kingpin who retails ridiculously expensive watches, and various henchmen who cannot measure up to Sewaram’s raw physical tsunami. On his side is an elderly sewage worker whose planned suicide is diverted by the promise of vicarious participation in Sewaram’s mayhem, a couple of taxi drivers, various finger-licking chicken and mutton dishes, and Santosh’s equally femme fatale sister (yes, you guessed it), Pinky. You will not complain about the narrative’s climax or the book’s ending.
“...That’s a superhit story, Manjhi,” a friend tells Sewaram during these escapades.
‘Right. It’s got sex and money. Nothing better as far as stories go....”’
It is a potboiler with a difference, however, because of Solanki’s superior writing. It is engaging and racy. It is insightful and drops an occasional deeper truth into the boiling pot without being overly ponderous and without any purple prose. Solanki’s writing made me insecure about my own—was whatever I wrote filled with as much life as his is, or was it inadequate? It reminded me of last year’s crime thriller by an accomplished littérateur: Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee.
One way in which Solanki writes a better genre novel is the way he etches out the supporting cast. Though they might seem to be recognisable stereotypes, none of them is a cardboard cut-out or a cartoonish character.
Solanki invests each with something that raises them above the usual, and he does this with quick brushstrokes, as an accomplished artist might do. For instance, when Sewaram visits the crooked banker, the banker melts into the background while his wife and daughter come into sharp focus—in rewarding ways for the story.
This is not to say Manjhi’s Mayhem is perfect. My very minor quibble is that one reads the characters speaking and thinking in English even though Sewaram’s narration twice clarifies that the dialogue is in Hindi or Marathi. On at least one occasion, I stopped and wondered: did this character really think such-and-such? At the risk of sounding like a tone-deaf snob, it seemed a bit sophisticated as far as thoughts go. After all, language = thought. One might argue that these thoughts are the English analogues of perfectly valid thoughts in Hindi, but I am not convinced. (This is a constant feature of Amitav Ghosh’s novels, where little boys talk as if at their PhD viva voce, an irritant that repels me from his oeuvre.) But as I said, this is a minor quibble about Manjhi’s Mayhem that should not detract from this otherwise engrossing novel.
The real litmus test of the book is that it made me want to pick up Solanki’s other writings: The Machine is Learning, which made it to the JCB Prize longlist in 2020, and a short story collection, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, which got him the 2019 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar Award. In an era when Indian publishing is churning out piles of mediocrity, the fact that you want to read more of a writer is a rarity, and an accomplishment.
That it is a crime thriller is even better, for though India has produced its share of crime writing, from Surender Mohan Pathak’s Hindi potboilers (many of which are just rehashes of James Hadley Chase that he translated into Hindi in the 1970s, and that flooded north Indian railway station bookstalls back then), to the serial killers who populate Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s books (pick up his Patang), to the endless double-crosses in Ankush Saikia’s eight novels, to the historical whodunits by Arjun Raj Gaind, to the tongue-in-cheek mysteries of Bengaluru-based Zac O’Yeah, to the hardboiled detectives of Anita Nair’s crime fiction.
But it is not enough. Indian crime fiction has not broken out into the international market the way that Scandinavian noir or American true crime has. Additionally, literary agents are after their writers to not write novels but to write TV “bibles” for shows that might interest streaming platforms like Netflix. We live in hope.
Recently, I read a book of true crime stories, V. Sudarshan’s Tuticorin: Adventures in Tamil Nadu’s Crime Capital, which, despite the hyperbolic title, is a fascinating collection of 20 simply told tales. After reading it, my first thought was that it would make for a great series, with eight selected stories fleshed out into episodes. With Manjhi’s Mayhem, however, I do not see a show but a movie directed by someone like Anurag Kashyap. I would pay money to watch it.
I hope Solanki brings Manjhi back for another adventure. And another. And another. God knows India needs more well-written crime novels.
Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based in the NCR.
- Manjhi’s Mayhem is a well-written noirish crime thriller set in one of Mumbai’s grittier universes.
- It is insightful and drops an occasional deeper truth into the boiling pot without being overly ponderous and without any purple prose.
- Tanuj Solanki invests each with something that raises them above the usual.