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Tanuj Solanki's new crime novel walks Mumbai’s mean streets

In ‘Manjhi’s Mayhem’, a new noir crime novel, a security guard gets involved with a beautiful woman and uncovers a banking scam

Manjhi’s Mayhem is most suited for a screen adaptation.
Manjhi’s Mayhem is most suited for a screen adaptation. (iStockphoto)

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Set in present day Mumbai, Tanuj Solanki’s Manjhi’s Mayhem is a crime novel, thriller and literary noir, all rolled into one. Narrator and protagonist Sewa Ram Manjhi, a security guard, beats up a couple of men for misbehaving with a woman, drawing the attention of a beautiful hostess named Santosh, who works in a high-end restaurant next to the coffee shop where he’s employed. Thus begins Manjhi’s torrid affair with Santosh: it leads him to rough up a man who was threatening her and then go in search for a missing bagful of money to help Santosh and her sister. It is then that he unearths an ongoing banking scam, which changes his life forever.

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Manjhi, a Dalit who runs away from his home in Uttar Pradesh, is reminiscent of Balram Halwai, the ambitious protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel The White Tiger. Both Halwai and Manjhi come from the dark underbelly of north India, both resort to violence to change their fortunes, and both live with acquired names. Unlike Halwai, however, Manjhi doesn’t kill innocent people for money. The people Manjhi harms or blackmails are criminals themselves. And unlike Halwai, he doesn’t change his name to mask his criminal past, but only to get a job—a Dalit from Deoria, UP is less likely to be employed as a security guard than a Jat from Jhajjar, Haryana, he explains. Through Solanki’s writing, this seemingly common plot device transforms into a powerful comment on the caste system, a theme that runs throughout the book.

Front cover of the book.
Front cover of the book.

Soon after they make love, Santosh, a Brahmin, comes to know that Manjhi is a Dalit, and ends up abusing him for hiding his true caste identity. While she does reconcile with him later, it isn’t because she is suddenly an egalitarian—she needs Manjhi’s help to get out of danger. Solanki writes all his characters with deep empathy, but his bias for the suppressed and marginalised classes, and the underdog, is clear. For him, Manjhi is not a criminal. He is not even an antihero. Manjhi is a hero, and Solanki’s writing makes sure you root for him.

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The pacey yet vivid writing through the 200-odd pages defines the characters and also conveys a strong sense of time and place. Paired with an intriguing plot, this makes Manjhi’s Mayhem most suited for a screen adaptation, too. Solanki does many things right, but his reluctance to make his characters more layered holds the book back. Had Sewaram Manjhi come with a meaty backstory, the reader might have connected better with him. Also, the last few chapters feel hurried—they could have done with more details on the intricacies of the bank scam, which those with a background in finance might grasp but a lay reader may not.

Despite these minor shortcomings, and a denouement that’s too easy and quick to unfold, nothing can take away from Solanki’s story. Manjhi's Mahyem is a compulsive read, one that you can’t stop once you start.

Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic and banker. His debut novel, Patna Blues, has been translated into 10 languages.

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