Death in the toilet

Lead review: The narrative of Jerry Pinto's latest, a crime thriller set in Mumbai, offers the reader the role of a co-detective

Death in the toilet

Bombay doesn’t do night.” The first sentence hooks you, a precise declaration that defines the book and the city. It’s an insomniac city. “The sun falls into the sea, but darkness doesn’t stand a chance — Each evening, darkness struggles for footholds and hidey-holes.”

One such hole, a toilet in Matunga Road railway station, becomes the focus of unsavoury attention. The body of a young man is discovered along with a bloody message: 1. This is the arena of clandestine rendezvous between man and man, egged on (it is later revealed) by greedy cops out to make an indecent blackmail package. Inspector Jende ropes in his old school friend Peter D’Souza (whom he calls ‘Pittr’) as a sort of Dr Watson. Peter morphs into Holmes, though.

The backyard is Jerry Pinto’s own Mahim, well-known and beloved enough to come alive with a few familiar, pointed details. Peter walks to the station after being informed of the murder, breathing in aromas on the regular route of his newspaper years. “The smell of jaggery and spiced cashews from the Mangalore shop. The gummy reek of a jackfruit cut open by the Bihari vendor. The heady scents of incense, ghee and marigolds from the Saptakoteshwara Temple. The sharp tang of Gauri, the black cow tethered outside the temple.” He stops to stroke the cow, and she edges closer to him.

In the station, Peter is struck by the “smell of the railways — The tang of iron. It had been on his hands after every strap-hanging commute. But it was also the smell of blood. Blood rusts, just as the railways do.”

Such details, and the easy way Pinto paints his narrative with them, bring alive the story, and we get the feeling of participating along with Peter. (The author also makes his presence felt, subtler than Hitchcock; a newspaper article is signed Jotin Perry, an anagram of Jerry Pinto.)

Conversations are everyday and quirky, the people familiar and outlandish, the discoveries expected and bizarre — very much as they are in life. Even as we’re escorted through familiar lanes of Colaba that turn grimly different at night, I was reminded of the Arabs in the 80s who’d throw open their pricey hotel suites to greedily let in the rain, and an incident near Churchgate when I saw a little boy beaten with whips for the viewing pleasure of an Arab sheikh. Those who’ve lived in Bombay/Mumbai will identify Pinto’s recreation with almost lustful recognition. That’s also the best thing about the book.

Besides Peter and his wife Millie, and Inspector Jinde, there are some other interesting characters: their son Sunil, who breaks his silence in the end; Leslie the languorous ageing Queen who leads relative Peter through gay trails, showing him likelihoods of the case, and the complex permutations of MSM liaisons; Pagmat the retired PT master who, in his prime, allowed young boys to come home and use his bathroom; and the self-conscious (“I think I’m a typical beauty, like Aishwarya Rai”) Himali, a “stunningly pretty young woman” whose husband had jumped from their 11th- floor home.

Even before we’re introduced to the murder, we know the anxiety of Peter and his wife concerning their son, that he could be gay. When his number turns up in the dead man’s phone, another fear rises, that he could be a suspect. These alarms are as much ours as theirs, a family we’ve warmly identified with right from the beginning.

Peter is now a nightbird, yawning as they chase the sleaze that forms the trail of investigation, sacrificing sleep, and alert to Inspector Jende’s nocturnal summons, unused to these post-retirement pressures.

The murder mystery is a jigsaw puzzle  that protagonist, writer and reader piece together simultaneously.

The exciting thing about such a genre is that the reader enters the plot, feeling like a parallel detective working on the case. In Jerry Pinto’s Murder In Mahim, as the pieces are brought in and placed on the table, giving us a more or less thrilling idea of where we’re headed, an unseen, unfelt, incomprehensible breeze flutters in towards the end of the book and scatters the pieces, so that we are left focussing on the pieces, and not the mystery.

It’s how a murder mystery is built, the pieces and the whole in equal significance, a picture developing even as we help put the pieces together. Almost till the very end of this one, we’re left staring at the pieces — warmly crafted and eminently stareable — but they engage so much, we’re in danger of losing the plot, and we need to return to re-learn it. We are also left waiting eagerly, impatiently for the D’Souza family to come together one last time so we can see how they’ve made it — the father, the son and the patient mother.

Murder In Mahim
Jerry Pinto
Speaking Tiger
2017, pp 232,
Rs. 499

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