The darker hues of Mumbai

Mumbai Noir, the new anthology of noir writing, portrays not just the elements associated with crime and the underworld, but also the darker aspects of ordinary lives. With 14 stories set across different neighbourhoods of Mumbai, this yet-to-be-released book presents a fascinating insight into the city of dreams

Criminal networks, terrorist activities, goons and crimes; Mumbai is famous for its sordid underbelly. But Mumbai Noir goes beyond this.

Riyaz Mulla's story titled Justice, is set near the Mahim Dargah,
and is about a person undergoing trial in the 1993 riots

The plots revolve around incidents such as men flirting with death in dance bars, a woman being followed by a psychopathic romeo and a housewife whose servant will not touch non-vegetarian food.

Capturing the essence of the city of dreams with 14 different stories, this anthology expands the boundaries of what was traditionally considered the noir genre.

After the success of the Brooklyn Noir, which was published in 2004, Akashic Books published a series of noir anthologies, the most recent one being Mumbai Noir, which comes soon after the Delhi Noir anthology.

Altaf Tyrewala, who has edited Mumbai Noir, was approached by Akashic Books in 2008 and got in touch with 13 other writers to put together this book. Quiz him on what he feels about the end product and he says, "It's an unsettling read, which is how I wanted it to be."

"The stories are vastly different from each other and the writers have taken great liberties," says Altaf. "The anthology has captured as vast a variety as possible in terms of subjects, sub-cultures, social strata and more and each of them is located in a specific neighbourhood," he adds.

Altaf Tyrewala, who has edited Mumbai Noir

Altaf's story, titled The Watchman, is set in Worli and is based on an existential dread. "It's the story of a watchman who has been observing things day in and day out and he feels that he has found a pattern," elaborates Altaf.

Namita Devidayal's story, titled The Egg, is about the darkness that exists in daily life. "It's a very dark story about a housewife living on Walkeshwar Road. She lives in one of those buildings where non-vegetarian food is not allowed. Her servant is a traditional Maharaj who is a strict vegetarian and it's about what happens when he discovers an egg in the house," she says.

The idea behind the story is inspired by a real anecdote. "I was having breakfast with a friend when she spoke about how people in her building object to making non-vegetarian food at home. I realised that there is so much darkness in our daily lives. This story is a comment on the real estate situation and the tyranny of domestic pressures," she adds.

Kalpana Swaminathan, who writes with Ishrat Syed as Kalpish Ratna, has contributed the story titled At Leopold Cafe, to the anthology. The story is set at Leopold Cafe four days after the November 26 attack. "It has a two time-setting and moves between the present and two centuries in the past," she says.

Film director Abbas Tyrewala has contributed Chachu At Dusk to the anthology. We ask him whether he believes that noir writing is becoming more popular these days and he says, "I am surprised if it is becoming popular only now. I have always been a fan of the genre."

His story traces the journey of a driver of an underworld goon, The Lala, who watches as the underworld loses its charm and honour. Talking about the other stories in the book, he says, "It's amazing how different the stories are. The idea that noir can also occur by daylight is fantastic," he adds.

"Each story brings out a distinctly different flavour of the city," says Riyaz Mulla, whose story Justice, is set near the Mahim Durgah and talks about how an ordinary man is driven to plant a bomb during the 1993 riots. Is it difficult to write a story in this genre? "Not difficult, but a little disturbing," he admits.

"In Mumbai, writing a noir story should be easy as noir elements seem to be there everywhere. Things could go terribly wrong in a fraction of a second," adds Altaf.

"When you are going on a highway, there always seems to be a lurking danger. There is a certain darkness in everyday situations in our city. Even if someone sets out to write a happy story, it will end up having noir elements," he concludes with a laugh.

History of noir Writing
Noir fiction as a literary style was pioneered by Carroll John Daly in the mid-1920s, followed by Dashiell Hammett over the course of the decade, and then by Raymond Chandler beginning in the late 1930s.
The dark underbelly, crime and sex formed its theme. James M Cain who was famous for his noir fictions, debuted as a crime novelist in 1934. Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy B Hughes, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Williams, and Elmore Leonard are other writers who made the noir fiction popular.

The use of the word noir in fiction is derived from film noir, a term used to describe dark Hollywood crime dramas and melodramas. In fact, the word noir (French for black), was used by French observers to describe dark films in the 1940s. 

Mumbai Noir, edited by Altaf Tyrewala, Akashic Books, $ 15.95 (approx Rs 778), Available from March 2012

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