16 April 2012

Book Review: Death in Mumbai

The Maria Susairaj murder has attracted all sorts of retellings, but Meenal Baghel’s fine book is the first that situates the story in the larger realities of Bollywood and India.

Death in Mumbai: by Meenal Baghel
 Random House, pp: 231 Rs. 299.

Meenal Baghel's Death in Mumbai is, quite simply, an unputdownable book. But while its subject, the 2008 Neeraj Grover murder, is undeniably among the most sensational crimes of our times, Baghel's book does not acquire its unputdownability merely from our prurient interest in the intimate lives of the accused – an aspiring Bollywood actress called Maria Susairaj and her naval officer boyfriend, Emile Jerome – or the notoriously gory details of the crime itself (though whether we want to admit it or not, those probably help).

What makes Death in Mumbai such a compelling read is Baghel's ability to combine a fine-grained interest in the particulars with a sharp (but nicely understated) sense of the big picture. Her persistent, unsparing gaze is attentive to every possible detail – Maria Susairaj's fashionably cinched-at-the-waist tops slowly giving way to baggier clothes as she loses some of her tenacious grip on life, Inspector Raorane's thoughts on torture ("All this maar-dhaad is outdated...You have to read the profile of the person you are questioning and raise yourself to that level"), the pithy one-liners framed on the walls of the Asha Chandra Acting Institute where Susairaj once did a course ('If You Tell The Truth You Don't Have To Remember Anything'. And by embedding the minutiae of Jerome, Susairaj and Grover's individual histories within the larger matrix of their life choices and aspirations (and those of people like them), Baghel points again and again to the specificity of the post-liberalisation Indian experience. Her characters belong to a world that has come into being only in the last two decades: middle class girls whose good looks are no longer a passport to a good rishta, but promise an escape from enforced domesticity via the beauty pageant and the item number; young men for whom moving to Mumbai is also to move quietly but irrevocably out of the ambit of familial expectations; small town parents who have abandoned an older, sparer model of parenting for one in which it is deemed normal to fulfil their child's every desire: "Whatever he wished for, Neeraj got. Whether it was a kennel for his pet Silky, a Rs. 35,000 Nikon though Neeraj had precious little to do with photography, expensive clothes, a motorbike, a car."

It helps that the book is superbly structured, successfully varying its pace to create a narrative that is as riveting as it is thoughtful. Baghel allows us the slow, pleasurable unpacking of a central figure (in chapters called 'Maria', 'Emile', 'Neeraj') while also managing to move between places and people with wonderful reportorial timing: a succinct pen-portrait of Mysore here, a father-daughter relationship explored neatly there, an anecdote supplied exactly where needed. When introducing police commissioner Rakesh Maria, for example, she is quick to tell us that he's renowned for his "gut feel", immediately following this up with a pacy account of how Maria cracked the connection between Tiger Memon and the 1993 Bombay blasts. Or again, while the section on Neeraj and his family comes almost at the end of the book, Baghel provides a poignant, revealing moment early on: Neeraj's father's half-baffled, half-awed realisation that his son is now in charge, that he'd become the adult in their relationship, the one whose decisions were not to be questioned. " 'After which both of you also come and live with me in Mumbai. You've worked long enough,' he'd said, accepting no argument. So this was how power shifted centre. Their boy had become his own man."

Perhaps the most remarkable and unexpected part of this book is the middle section – entitled 'Oshiwara: Three Characters in Search of a Film' – in which Baghel devotes a chapter each to Ekta Kapoor, Moon Das and Ram Gopal Varma. Kapoor is the founder and head of Balaji Telefilms, where Neeraj Grover had once worked; Das is an aspiring item girl who played Susairaj in a low-budget film about the murder called Oh! Maria; while Varma is a well-known maverick filmmaker who made a film centred around Maria and the murder and "laughingly confessed to being 'half in love with her'". They are figures tangential to the primary narrative. But barring RGV, whose presence seems more to do with the admission that "Ram Gopal Varma on a roll is one of journalism's guilty pleasures", Baghel's ear for dialogue and eye for detail makes these chapters seem integral to her book. Moon Das's odd mix of virginal coyness and cultivated "sex symbol" persona, in particular, adds much to our understanding of women like her and Maria – not to mention the absolutely bizarre way that Moon's boyfriend's shooting of her mother and uncle resonates with Emile's (presumed) murderous rage.

Far too many writers and publishers these days seem to believe that all writing a book about India needs is a bit of autobiographical meandering, a few anecdotes (from your driver, or perhaps from a train journey), followed by some grand pronouncements about how globalisation is changing everything (for better or for worse, depending on your political proclivities). Meenal Baghel, thankfully, doesn't set out to tell us about 'the new India' – but her tightly focused, scrupulously researched book is probably among the most insightful things you could read about it.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

No comments: