Book Review


Murder in Mahim by Jerry Pinto

-- Mariam Karim

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 232pp

You pick it up and you can’t put it down until you’ve finished it. We are all familiar with Jerry Pinto’s writing style, so we know he is easy to read, full of fun, sometimes humorous and skimming , sometimes deep and melancholy. And Jerry is Bombay of course. Now Mumbai .This book has all of the markers of Jerry’s writing. But it is his first murder mystery so it is special. It is also special because it deals with a very important subject, the terrifying cocktail of youth, poverty, homosexuality, and sex work.

Peter Fernandes is a retired journalist. His Inspector friend Jende calls him Pittr. And calls Pittr’s wife Millie-Bhagat. So we immediately discern Jende has a heavy accent and has a sense of humour. Pittr and Millie-Bhagat have a son, Sunil, who disappears from time to time doing NGO work and doesn’t always keep in touch as he should. Then he appears while he’s disappeared on the front page of the evening paper as a gay activist. Peter and Millie react as any heterosexual parents would. Is their son gay? If so how should they react? Would they EVER have grandchildren?

A murder occurs in a railway toilet: a young man with one kidney slashed out. The preface by the author has already told you it is not going to be the only murder. 

Set in the streets and by-lanes of Mahim which Jerry Pinto obviously knows like the back of his hand, this murder mystery is not only gripping but takes the reader into the desolate underbelly of a glittering Bombay suburb – the point of intersection between the rich and the poor, where illicit and bought sex is the common denominator, where exploitation, violence and even murder are always possible. It can disturb the readers’ reality.

The plot is complex and winding, leading us up different paths, allowing us to believe that such and such suspect is bound to be the murderer, like in an Agatha Christie novel, then veering off in another direction altogether, making us feel let down and disappointed at the simplicity of a deduction, then yet again plunging us into darkness about the murderer. There is a plethora of characters and settings, again like in a Bollywood film – from the streets to the seaside to cafes to chawls. From Jende the policeman to octogenarian PT Master Pagmat, to the beautiful and empty headed Himali, to Proxy, Rocket, and Unit – the “boys” – to Pitale the psychiatrist, and to the unforgettable Leslie, the Queen, or Rani Maa – Millie’s cousin.

Pinto creates his many characters with care, like a film script writer, and what is especially remarkable and missing in most IWE writers is that he creates a convincing idiolect for each of them. This is what we find in Hindi films and which is so charming. It helps us remember the characters even if we have forgotten the story. It is clear though that most of his upper class characters have studied in English-medium schools and colleges. The jokes, allusions and puns all point to that. But the language use and allusions are particularly well suited to the character of Leslie, whose conversation takes several twists and turns before arriving to the point of discussion, and though Peter may be bored and impatient with him, the reader certainly isn’t.

 

Leslie enters the scene (a little late perhaps, he should have been in the story earlier) and addresses Peter as Pumpkin Eater. At other times he calls him Rock (peter) or Peter Peter. He’s obviously read Eliot as he says at one point ‘’Let us go then you and I when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Initially there are descriptions of the locale and settings through the eyes of Peter, but as the book progresses it operates more through conversations which seems to work more incisively to the advantage of the story as compared to the descriptions . Many of these conversations are peppered with the local lingo and the jargon and code words used by homosexual sex workers.

The relationship between Peter and Millie is a mite unconvincing though they do go on at each other like a couple would, but through them Pinto poses the question – what are our priorities? The safety and happiness of our children or their sexual orientation? How one problem of our lives can seem devastating, until we learn that there can be far greater and more terrifying dilemmas.

The story could’ve been a little more tightly put together and some of the meanderings into certain characters in the past used to explain the conduct of criminals could’ve been eschewed, but overall one wouldn’t mind reading another murder mystery featuring Pittr and Zende, nor a string of them if Jerry Pinto would oblige.