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Mr Majestic: the Tout of Bengaluru

Zac O’Yeah

Hachette

Pages: 304 Rs. 550

Not quite noir, but this tout is a peddler of joy nevertheless

Zac O’Yeah’s reliable comic touch and his canny observations about the city of Bangalore compensate for his novel’s intermittently weak characterisation, writes Aadisht Khanna

Aadisht Khanna  6th Apr 2013

Zac O’Yeah

ac O'Yeah's Mr Majestic: the Tout of Bengaluru comes with two blurbs on the back cover. One calls it "quirky, amusing, and teeming with unforgettable characters." This is true. The other blurb calls it "authentic Bangalore noir," and this is not entirely true. It is authentic when it comes to Bangalore, but the most noir thing about Mr Majestic is how black its humour is. It functions more as a sendup or subversion of the tropes of noir than as noir itself.

If we look at Raymond Chandler's essay on the detective novel, The Simple Art of Murder, we get one of the most appealing definitions of the noir hero: the man who goes down mean streets without being mean himself, and is neither tarnished nor afraid; the best man in his world and a good enough man in any world.

Mr Majestic's protagonist, Hari Majestic, is therefore a miserable failure as a noir hero. He is permanently tarnished and frequently afraid. He is not a "man of honour." He is a small time tout who feeds off confused tourists in Bangalore, when he's not assisting with running Nigerian 419 email scams from a cybercafé. Over the course of the book he's abducted and beaten up by rowdies, outsmarted by his suspects, frustrated sexually, and kicked around by merciless fate. He's not so much a hard boiled hero as a frequently scrambled one.

This scrambling is because Majestic is only in control of the situation as long as it's a small scam or a tiny lie. Anything more than that and things get away from him. He spends the book achieving a succession of tiny, limited victories, which only serve to shove him into larger problems from which he has to be rescued by supporting characters.

These supporting characters are introduced early, and then brought back just when they're needed, making Mister Majestic something like a 'youngest prince' folktale in which the hero is helped by animals he's rescued earlier in the story. Here, though, the saviours are a lunatic autorickshaw driver for whom Majestic sneaks booze into a hospital, a prudish police sub-inspector who Majestic promises he'll deliver a lecture to school children on the evils of alcohol, and the mongrel reincarnation of Winston Churchill, who Majestic saves from flooding. The book doesn't have a single Chekhov's gun, or even a Chekhov's Arsenal. It has a Chekhov's Menagerie.

Majestic is only in control of the situation as long as it’s a small scam or a tiny lie. Anything more than that and things get away from him. He spends the book achieving a succession of tiny, limited victories.

Hari Majestic is not the only subversion of the conventions of noir. Almost everything is played for laughs, by making it pathetic – the hero, the femme fatale, the damsel in distress, the hired muscle, and the grotesqueness of the environment. Handled less lightly, elements of the book like a dismembered nose or being drowned in sewage could have become horror or filth porn, but O'Yeah's writing makes it a romp through gross-out humour. Almost the only character played seriously is the big bad villain: an unredeemed pornographer, pimp, drug dealer, and agent for hired muscle.

The other character the book takes as seriously is the city of Bangalore, which comes alive in the book, its quirks and warts depicted in gleeful detail. Bangalore acts as an agent for fate in the book. Its traffic jams, waste management problems, gated suburbs for the filthy rich, and sleazy exurbs for the merely filthy all act to push Majestic into more horrible situations or providential escapes (that save him for the next horrible situation). The Bangalore of Mister Majestic is a Bangalore situated in a recognizable time and place, not just a backdrop that happens to be called Bangalore.

angalore is so strongly depicted, in fact, that while reading Mister Majestic, I found myself thinking of it in relation not to other detective novels, but to urbanist Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which seemed to predict so many of the problems that Bangalore faces today and that O'Yeah has turned into vital plot points: the colonization of roads by automobiles, the danger of giant planned suburbs all built in a single go, and the takeover of parks by criminal elements.

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with a real life Bangalore does mean that while the book rings true to life today, it may seem dated ten years later, by which time Bangalore would have evolved to something new. With the sense of familiarity with the Bangalore of the book gone, the human characters will have to stand on their own.

And standing on his own is exactly what Hari Majestic has a problem with. He's ineffective and has to rely on his saviours any time he's in a situation that doesn't involve his habits: running email scams, inflating expenses, drinking coffee, or his only active pursuit that doesn't involve criminal activity: memorizing Wikipedia.

This last habit sounds like a dig at quizzers, something else that has a strong Bangalore association – and Bangalore arguably has the only decent and genuine quizzing in India. But it's also the sort of dig that older, seasoned quizzers (seasoned in vinegar, presumably, given their sourness) make about young and overenthusiastic ones. A couple of chapters are also set at a quizzers' haunt, Koshy's – where, the unaware should know, the company of the quizzers is by far the best thing available, as the food itself is awful. And the book is full of the sort of humour that frequent quizzers love: nerdy references, terrible puns, and in jokes and allusions to similar books- at one point, Hari Majestic attempts to teach a damsel in distress about Indian culture by bringing her two books – one by Zac O'Yeah himself, and one by his wife, novelist Anjum Hasan. It's a final, cheeky, joke that tops off a book full of wonderfully timed humour.

 
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