Blood and the city
Pinto brings his literary talent to bear on a murder mystery
Credit: The Hindu
Jerry Pinto has many facets as a writer: journalist, columnist, well-regarded poet, biographer, author of books for children, editor of several anthologies of prose and poetry, sensitive translator. And then, in 2012, his Em and the Big Hoom came out. A tender, deeply moving, beautifully written novel — it took 20 years and 27 drafts, he has said — with not a few similarities to the circumstances of the author’s own life, it earned short-listings and awards in the country and elsewhere, most recently Yale University Windham-Campbell Prize last year. And, once more, one wondered, what can’t the man write?
Now, he has turned his hand to crime, so to speak, and that question will have to remain unanswered.
Murder in Mahim is a satisfactory murder story. There is sufficient blood and gore, starting off with a body in the men’s toilet of Mahim station (a mid-town stop on Mumbai’s suburban railway network) with its abdomen cut open and, as it turns out, a kidney removed. And there are, without revealing too much, several more deaths to come, at unexpected points and to unexpected people.
The protagonist, Peter Fernandes, is a middle-aged, middle-class, unpretentious man, intelligent and quietly observant, and secure enough to question his own biases. A journalist who has taken early retirement, and presumably having invested his retrenchment package wisely, he spends his time doing a little freelance editing, walking around the neighbourhood and helping out a school friend who is now a police inspector, Shiva Jende, with his investigations. Pinto carves out the principal cast with enough detail to give them dimension, but not too much as to interrupt the story: notably Peter’s wife and their activist son, both as instantly likeable as he is — and, glory be, they’re a family that actually like and trust each other and get on! — and Leslie, ‘Queen of the Queen of the Suburbs,’ a cousin of his wife’s who becomes his guide to The Scene, the city’s gay subculture. Jende, however, is not as delicately sculpted a character as some of the others, and one wishes he was; one senses the depth of the man, a determinedly honest cop, but there is not enough of what moves him to make him a satisfying character. One flat character who gets more than a walk-on role is a psychiatrist whose only purpose is to expound at length about criminal minds and mental illness.
The story moves briskly along, and though one could see a few plot points coming a mile away, Pinto brings the several narrative threads together to a satisfactory dénouement that should please most fans of the genre. What makes this worth the read for those who may not like whodunits is the writing. Pinto describes the city with the understatement of a poet. We feel the grime of the railway platforms, the impatient traffic, the different kinds of neighbourhoods and homes we visit; we grok both the brightness and the dark despair of the city that Pinto, Fernandes and I share and know well.
And his craft is what make a few errors of detailing blare like a train horn. For instance, Peter’s surname is D’Souza on the book jacket. His son’s name is Sunil, but he signs an SMS with the letter J. Leslie’s surname is Siqueira at one point, Sequeira at another, and he is described as an art director when he first makes an appearance and calls himself a copywriter later. Leslie speaks of Dadar boys fluttering down to Mahim and Bandra babas coming up north, when Mahim is south of Bandra and north of Dadar. And when referring to gay celebrities caught ‘cottaging’ (looking for sex in public toilets), Leslie names Alan Turing and George Harrison. Leslie, smart, well-read, and doing his best to help Peter understand The Scene, would seem to be unlikely to name the ex-Beatle, who may or may not have swung both ways, and not that other famous British musician, George Michael, who was outed in a sting bust in a California public toilet.
These, however, are easily fixed in later editions, and do not detract from the story. It’s a book one can finish quickly — it took me two sittings, and that hasn’t happened in a while — and then go back to savour again at leisure, a quality few crime novels have.
It leaves one with mixed feelings. One wants to meet Peter and his lovely family again and, yes, get to know Shiva Jende, and so there is the hope that that turns into a series.
But then one also wants to know what genre Pinto will try next. And who would want to get in the way of that?