Indian writing in English is booming. Publishers have never had it better. Nor readers. And as for authors, well, they seem to be crawling out of every plastered wall in the country. Variety, depth, background, industry, audience...every box was being ticked. Really.
Nope, not so. Every publisher knows there’s one humungous gap in his ‘list’: the crime hit, the desi counterpart of a Poirot or a Harry Hole, each episode of whose adventures will be snapped up by thousands, making the year’s bottomlines look blacker than the darkest murder. Over the past year, particularly, there’s been a slew of police procedurals—Monabi Mitra’s FIR, starring DSP Bikram Chatterjee, and Anita Nair’s Cut Like Wound, with Inspector Borei Gowda, to name just a couple—but few of these efforts have managed to break away from western narrative templates, despite lingo and locale. Until now.
Pitted against Scandinavian crime fiction, which is having a long season, Mr Majestic—the Tout of Bengaluru, is Bollywood to European arthouse. And no, not the ‘meaningful’ multiplex cinema of today either, filmed in shades of blue and bleak, but gloriously, unabashedly Technicolor with full-on frontal lighting, over-the-top escapades and sheer joy seeping out of every frame, as summed up in Paul Fernandes’ cheeky cover art. Zac O’Yeah—Swedish by birth, incidentally, and Bangalorean by choice—casts a droll eye on everything familiar to the urban Indian, and a lot that escapes him entirely, and wrings out a novel that’s not quite like anything done before in the English language.
By turns city noir, comic caper, on-the-edge mystery and unapologetic page-turner, Mr Majestic also manages to be that rare thing: a crime novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously while simultaneously ensuring the bad guys get their comeuppance. The credit for that must go to the magnificent Mr Majestic, he who saves dogs and damsels from distress with equal aplomb. A foundling who finds himself gainfully occupied with Internet scams, Hari—also known as Harry (‘as in Potter, but better’) and Director Bongjee—receives a reality check when he runs into a white woman searching for her sister, apparently a victim of one of our man’s many money-making plots. Hari is shaken, for he is not essentially a bad man, but he also sniffs a lucrative opportunity.
And so begins a bone-rattling, nerve-wracking auto-rickshaw ride into Bangalore’s nether regions: dives where barmen hand out guns and gunpowder with equanimity, lakes where foreign tourists disappear without so much as a by-your-leave, business complexes where porn-sellers aspire to Hollywood, gangster dens where coconut-scrapers are put to unthinkable uses (or did I dream that up, after reading Mr Majestic in bed?), a wayside railway station featuring the Shroud of Turin and sticky situations that can be rescued only by little puppies with very sharp teeth.
As much as Mr Majestic, Bangalore is a living, breathing entity in the novel, drawn with affection and knowledge. The author has a sharp ear for the local patois, an unerring eye for the ridiculous and a feel for the city that should be the envy of many a Bangalore-born.
To be sure, like much of Bollywood, Mr Majestic drags at times, multiple villain-chases merge into one another and the annoyingly dim lovely at the centre of the fracas remains frustratingly unfleshed-out, but you’ll probably be too busy turning pages to notice. Hari is a keeper, a hero India deserves.