It is a fallacy to think that the raison d’être of genre novels is restricted to cheap thrills. When you think about people like Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie or Stephen King, you’re dealing with plot-driven fiction that —over and above its obvious strengths like pace and the ability to hold your attention — tells you something about the human condition, asks difficult questions and initiates a conversation about vital issues.
Unfortunately, genre fiction of this calibre is a rarity in India, no thanks to Monsieur Bhagat and Herr Ravinder Singh. Into this void steps Aditya Kripalani with his third book, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a remarkably sensitive novel about two Mumbai prostitutes who start a cooperative of sorts to protect the interests of their fellow sex workers. Kripalani is the author of two previous novels: Back Seat and its sequel Front Seat, both set in Mumbaias well.
Putul (aka Tikli) is a Bangladeshi immigrant with a streak of colour in her hair, a bottle of Old Monk handy and a mouthful of invective for anybody foolish enough to cross her. Upon her arrival in Mumbai, she begins living with the older, more experienced streetwalker Laxmi, who has a more defensive attitude towards life. For instance, Laxmi is more tolerant of their pimp A.T.’s lackadaisical attitude. She is also fearful of the crooked cop Mhatre, who never lets go of an opportunity to exploit her gang of prostitutes. However, Tikli’s arrival provokes Laxmi to own up to her fears and confront the people who take her for granted.
A Thelma and Louise-like vibe enters the narrative from the moment Tikli’s first ill-advised outburst lands the pair into a spot of bother. Character development is the author’s strong suite and it’s obvious that he has carried Tikli and Laxmi inside his head for years. Laxmi, in particular, leaps off the pages, especially at junctions like the first time she threatens a man with violence or the all-important scene where the cooperative (or “our system”, as Tikli and Laxmi call it) has its first physical confrontation with Mhatre’s goons. One gets the feeling that the dynamic between Laxmi, Tikli and some of the other characters like Sharanya is also informed by real-life cases in India involving women taking up arms for each other: Sampat Pal’s extraordinary Gulabi Gang comes to mindimmediately.
The main narrative is interspersed with Laxmi’s musings upon life in Mumbai, that most brutal of cities. At one point, Laxmi notes that with the change in name from Bombay to Mumbai, the city has now taken on a feminine form; she imagines the city as a world-weary, bruised and battered woman who stubbornly refuses to give up. There is a clever tie-in here with a standalone YouTube music video that Kripalani released a couple of years ago: Mumba Devi De Mujhko Kaafi, written as a soulful apology to the city’s feminine deity. In the novel’s universe, this song is written by Laxmi and recorded by her and Tikli: the song ends up making them a cause celebre on the Internet (the actual video has racked up close to 1,00,000 hits on YouTube). However, being an online celebrity does not free you from the consequences of your real-world actions: Kripalani’s heroines realise this soon.
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is neither wish fulfilment, feel-good literature nor a violence-fuelled revenge story, although it flirts briefly with the notion of being both, at various points in the book. Thankfully, it sticks to what it is at its heart: a gripping, no-holds-barred realist novel. As mentioned earlier in this review, it is rare to see genre fiction of this calibre coming out of India. And although this book only has a tangential connection to his earlier novels (Nikita, the protagonist of Front Seat and Back Seat, is name-checked in a scene towards the end of the book), it is what is often referred to as a “spiritual sequel”.
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, then, completes a formidable, intensely cinematic troika for Kripalani. Read it to experience the agony and the ecstasy of Mumbai.