Black Mumba is a collection of short stories set in the city of Mumbai, India. The stories are all told through the eyes of a weathered police inspector in a familiar 40s crime noir aesthetic. But in Black Mumba, there are no criminals to catch or villains to foil. The city of Mumbai itself is the quarry – the bleak, weird and yet hopeful nature of life on its streets is at the heart of this collection.I'm not normally a crime fiction fan, but I was curious to see how Mubai got portrayed. Particularly since all the creators aren't just of Indian origin, but live and work in India. Venkatesan is in fact from Mubai himself and would have more direct and visceral knowledge of the city. As opposed to most American writers who might just use the name as a quick way to say: "large, crowded city in an exotic location."
Indeed, I was not disappointed. On first reading, the stories came across as crime dramas seen through the eyes of this one officer. From the mundane (finding a wounded dog on an empty street) to the bizarre (a woman collecting body parts on a mannequin to see how many it would take to make a full person) we see the events through Inspector Dev's eyes. But returning back through it, I realized that Dev is really almost a non-character. He does act as the eyes of the reader, but there's relatively minimal characterization for ostensibly being the protagonist. What I realized, though, is that the city is itself the protagonist, and we actually learn a fair amount about the city, it's history and it's current status in these four, relatively short stories.
And what I found most fascinating about that was that it was presented with such familiarity that I didn't even realize at first some off the unique qualities that distinguish Mumbai from, say, any city in the United States. As the stories were written, it was just presented as you might present New York in a Marvel comic. But being Mumbai, a city with which I've never had the pleasure to experience first-hand, the unique qualities that make it stand out helped to make it stand out even more.
I don't know that I'd go so far as to call this a love letter to the city. Venkatesan is (or at least seems) honest with his presentation of Mumbai, including some of its more uncomfortable parts. But he paints an excellent picture of it, and acts as one of the most entertaining and adept tour guides I've come across. I think the best praise I can loft on the book is that I was genuinely disappointed that I got through it as quickly as I did. I would've liked to have spent a great deal more time there.