Mehrotra writes with the assurance of a successful madame, knowing that each of his stories is guaranteed to raise a sweat, a goose-pimple or at the very least, a guilty chuckle. He benefits from the fact that Indian fiction typically concerns itself with the tourist-brochure genre of literature. By contrast, his surly louts and horny misfits become almost loveable exactly because they’re so desperately ugly.
So we have men dancing in seedy bars, a casual murder in Defence Colony, eunuchs facilitating afternoon fornicators, a teacher’s daughter caught cheating at exams, a slum-den of hash and hopelessness, romance on the edge of epileptic fits, lustful teachers, raw nerves and kitchen knives, naked buttocks and sinewy wrists. The locales range from Delhi to Dehradun and Allahabad, with a couple of stories set in Bombay and Oxford.
Despite the all-pervading musk of masculine desire, stained bedsheets, heavy breathing and bulging crotches, the result is clinical rather than erotic. A curious joylessness pervades the stories in spite of all the drinks, the drugs, the sex. There is little sign of any pleasure, even while the pursuit of that very thing appears to be what all the characters we encounter are engaged in. The entire book can be downed in one burning gulp, like twelve-year-olds sampling Scotch whisky from their fathers’ locked cabinets.
The writing is jagged and angry but also so confident we barely notice it as we walk alongside Angad "...a middle-level techie in a sinking dot.com" or watch "a train of ants attracted to the semen like stale lemonade". A friend is assessed as untrustworthy: "while he would jump into swirling waters to save you if you were drowning, there was no guarantee he would not clobber you to death once you were safe and dry on the shore". Descriptions are offered in quick twists, short words, little time to pause and savour. The speed of emotions, deeds, degradations is telegraphed by the fat-free language, the action caught as if on security cameras, jerky, grainy, but high-contrast. Pitiless in its candour.
Amidst all the gritty realism I noticed tiny anomalies: in Bloody and the Friendship Club, for instance, a lizard is described as "sucking (an) insect dry" whereas to the best of my knowledge, reptiles have no choice but to swallow their victims whole. In The Nick of Time, "mascara" is used to draw "black circles around his eyes", rather than "eye-liner" or some other more liquid medium. Minor quibbles become noticeable because of the documentary realism of the rest of the reportage.
This is a stunning debut collection from an author in his early thirties. Yes, he may well have chosen his subjects knowing that, in one sense, sewer inspection tours are safer than bourgeois-lit: readers will either refuse to admit their familiarity with the events described or be too inexperienced to assess them for authenticity. But so what? I have come to prefer exaggerated ugliness to the endless airbrushing of horror that goes on daily, in the media and in the arts.