Review: Manjhi’s Mayhem byTanuj Solanki
Goons fly out of glass windows, paunchy bankers are slapped around and mafiosi crumble to the floor in Tanuj Solanki’s fast-paced new novel
I was introduced to Tanuj Solanki’s fiction back in 2015 when I read his short story Muzaffarnagar Diwali in Caravan magazine. It was a raw account of Tarun, a young man returning to his home town, Muzaffarnagar, known for communal unrest, to encounter the unsurprising truths of everyday life there.
He went on to publish an anthology of short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar (2018), which won him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar and the well received novels Neon Noon (2016) and The Machine is Learning (2020). His latest work, Manjhi’s Mayhem is the story of Sewaram Manjhi, just another person in the crowded city of Mumbai. A nondescript security guard working at a coffee shop by day and lifting bricks to build muscle by night, his solid jaw and sharp cheekbones exude confidence. Manjhi understands the ways of the world. He manages to steer clear of trouble until Santosh, an attractive young woman who takes reservation requests for the posh restaurant across the street, catches his eye. Santosh and her sister Pinky are involved with the bank mafia, and when a bag of money goes missing, Manjhi steps in and tries to right the wrongs wreaked on the weak and the poor. He also encounters an older man, Uncle, who is on the verge of ending his life, and true to his character, vows to somehow keep him alive. Well embroiled in the mayhem by now, the angry young Manjhi proceeds to bring everyone in line – the goons, the money launderers and the shrewd bank officials. The action scenes turn vividly comic as he punches and kicks the bad guys and readers learn of their grunts and groans. Goons fly out of glass windows, paunchy bankers whimper under the onslaught of Manjhi’s slaps, and a mafioso crumbles to the floor “ooh-ing and aah-ing in pain”, all in very filmy fashion.
Spread over about 200 pages, this fast paced novel oscillates between panoramic views of Mumbai’s skyline and a close look at the city’s grime and crime. Within this maximum metropolis is Manjhi’s world of fantasy jostling with sober reality, and as the windless nights slowly transform into an aggressive monsoon, he takes charge of the city and its darkness. The protagonist himself isn’t without flaws, but what good is an anti-hero if he doesn’t come with his own doubts and debauchery? Still, Sewaram Manjhi is not just any protagonist but someone whom the reader believes she knows very well. Pulling off an authorial sleight of hand, Solanki makes Manjhi so familiar that his extraordinary actions, in the best tradition of the action hero in popular films, appear in character. The cinematic sequences that follow are totally entertaining.
Designed by Antara K, the book cover, reminiscent of Don Draper’s unending fall in the title sequence of the American TV series Mad Men, deserves a special mention. Come to think of it, Sewaram Manjhi is a bit like Don Draper. He too knowingly hides his real name, a name that bears his Dalit identity. Instead, he adopts a Jat one — Harish Jakhar — that is presumably more socially acceptable. Of course, Manjhi’s reasons are as different from Draper’s as 21st century India is from 1950s USA.
Tanuj Solanki definitely knows how to tell a story. The ensemble of cool characters, the high octane drama, and the clear sighted honesty of the writing itself makes this a blockbuster among books.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.