Filmmaker and author, Piyush Jha's books have often chronicled the underbelly of Mumbai, and his latest offering, Girls of Mumbaistan is no different. Written in his quintessential gritty style, this noir book comprises of three novellas -- The Simple Girl, Maid for Murder and Inspector Hijra.
While The Simple Girl is about a distraught schoolteacher who is sucked into a disastrous maze of deceit to save her dying husband, the Maid for Murder is the story of an impoverished housemaid who finds her life spiralling out of control when she tries to help the unhappy couple she works for. Inspector Hijra is about a character who is Mumbai’s first transgender police officer. In the novella, she puts her precarious reputation and job at risk to unravel the mystery of the abduction of a foreign tourist’s child.
Jha, the writer/director of films like Chalo America, King of Bollywood and Sikandar, has an oeuvre of books that are nail-biting suspense thrillers like the series Mumbaistan, Compass Box Killer, Anti-Social Network and the stand-alone novel Raakshas- The Serial Killer. Jha’s Mumbaistan- Inspector Virkar Series of novels is being adapted into a web-OTT TV show series starring Prateik Babbar as Inspector Virkar. The first season, titled Virkar Vs The Anti-Social Network, has already been filmed and is currently in post-production.
In fact, one of the novellas from his new book Girls of Mumbaistan is also being adapted for the screen. Here's an excerpt from Girls of Mumbaistan that shows you how Jha has recreated Mumbai with all its noise, and texture and what edge-of-the-seat thriller you are in for:
‘Wear a burkha,’ Ajay had instructed her. ‘You have one, don’t you?’ His expression had said he didn’t want a reply; he knew Devi had one. Nevertheless, Devi had nodded, not wanting to get into a discussion on how she and
her husband had concealed their religious identity to escape from the rampant police checks for illegal Bangladeshi Muslims. She had a burkha tucked away in the bottom trunk. She used it once in a blue moon, when Partho was able to make the journey to various dargahs and masjids that they visited to offer prayers for the recovery of his health.
It was 7 the next morning. Devi had got up feeling groggy and laden with doubt. But doubt gave way to determination when her eyes fell on her husband’s frail sleeping body. She called Seema on her mobile and told her Partho was ill so she wouldn’t be able to go to work. Seema requested her to come in for a short while in the afternoon to quickly do the dishes. Ajay had anticipated this and instructed Devi to go to work in the afternoon if Seema insisted so that everything would look normal, like any other day.
Devi replied with a hasty, ‘Yes, memsahab,’ quickly cutting the line, afraid of what she might blurt out if the conversation went any further. Devi shuddered as she thought about how the day was intended to pan out. She hoped she could retain a semblance of normalcy in her behaviour after doing what she was about to do. She went to the stack of trunks in the corner and took out the burkha tucked away in the bottom pile of clothes. She stuffed it into a plastic bag, quickly left the hut and walked all the way from Hamaal Nagar to Vashi station, reaching there in half an hour.
As per Ajay’s instructions, she first stopped at a construction site close to the station. She hid behind a shed, quickly wore her burkha and then went into the station complex. Entering the station, she bought herself a ticket. Ajay had told her to do so. The last thing she needed was to get caught for ticketless travel while she was heading back out of the station after finishing her deed. Devi came back and stood at the mouth of the main entrance. Leaning against the sidewall, she could observe all the passers-by as they came in and out. Her position guaranteed that she remained out of the line of sight of passengers, who were generally in a rush, looking straight ahead.
Devi’s nervous eyes scanned each and every entering passenger, as if she expected Seema to be in disguise that day. Devi let out a nervous giggle when she realised what she was doing. About half an hour later, Devi saw Seema rushing in. By now, the crowds had thickened, and men and women were jostling each other as they entered. As Seema passed by, Devi fell in behind her, taking care to maintain a distance of a few feet. Devi trailed behind Seema all the way to the crowded platform number two. As per Ajay’s information, Seema would wait until one train had passed to manoeuvre herself right to the front of the platform, awaiting the next train to arrive.
According to Ajay, Seema liked to be the first one in the compartment so that she could grab a choice seat for her journey. In fact, Seema was right at the edge of the platform, her body tense and ready to jump in the train and beat the gaggle of women around her to the best seat. As Devi pushed past the women and stood right behind Seema, her heart began to pound, blood rushing to her ears. Even though only her eyes were exposed under the burkha, she was afraid Seema might look back and recognise her. But Seema was focused in the direction from which the next train would come, scanning the distance, waiting to spot the train. She couldn’t hear anything but the music in her ears through the headphones she had on.
A short while later, Devi sensed the crowd murmur. She stole a glance towards the north end of the platform and saw the train trundling towards them in the distance. Devi brought her hands up into position before her chest. The smell of cheap perfume, early morning sweat and packed lunches swirled around her. Her head began to spin as the train drew close to the platform. Slowly, she reached out and placed her palm on Seema’s back. Seema didn’t turn or react. She was concentrating on the oncoming train, perhaps calculating the speed and velocity at which she needed to move. Devi moved all her power into her shoulders, ready to pop it into her hands for the critical push. The train roared into the platform. Something snapped at that moment in Devi’s head and she lowered her hands. The crowd of women pushed forward as the train slowed down, but Devi cut sideways out of the crowd and away to a corner of the platform. She turned and watched Seema rush into the train and plop herself into a window seat, engrossed in listening to the song playing in the headset. A minute later, the train roared away out of the station, and Devi was left standing among the fresh wave of the morning crowd on the platform.