“None of this happened in English. It couldn’t have. English is not the language in which life runs for most people in this country. It all happened in a mix of Hindi and Marathi.”

How can anyone resist these opening lines? Barely any stories in India take place in English, especially not those about a wayward security guard who deals in blows, punches, and blackmail late into the night after finishing his shift at a posh Bombay café where he works.

Sewaram Manjhi – Harish Jakhar at the café (a fake Aadhar Card has turned him into a Jatt from a Dalit) – is no stranger to English. After all he welcomes many customers who spend many leisurely hours at the café drinking unpronounceable varieties of coffee, typing away on their laptops, and conversing in this quirky language. He knows that this language is the ticket to a life that he sees so closely every day but will never be within his reach. A nobody from Deoria, Uttar Pradesh, Manjhi arrives at the shores of Bombay to start anew following serious troubles of him being “burnt alive” in his village (he tells us there’s no time for this story). Clearly at the bottom of the food chain, his life can hardly be said to be uneventful or even uninteresting.

On the path of revenge

Manjhi’s troubles start with his name. He is a Dalit – an identity which only makes finding employment and girls all the more difficult. Though he fakes his identity documents and changes his name (and caste) as he sees fit, his pursuit of a woman’s attention is slightly more noble. Perhaps it is his own familiarity with mistreatment but when Manjhi roughens up a bunch of rogues for molesting a woman, he catches the attention of Santosh – a hostess at a fancy restaurant next door. It is a match made in South Bombay.

What follows is a tumultuous affair of sex and seduction, Manjhi spending fast cash on alcohol and taxi rides, and Santosh convincing him to seek vengeance on her behalf. Still intoxicated from the first flushes of spending his nights with Santosh, Manjhi says yes to her request of causing some real ‘tabahi’ to the man who threatened to disfigure her with acid. And thus begins his long and more gratifying affair with ‘tabahi’ or mayhem.

It’s difficult to say if Manjhi’s rage stems from being neglected by Bombay, or a violent brand of feminism, or simply the curious bravado that men suddenly discover when approached by helpless women – whatever it may be, Manjhi turns into an odd (anti) hero who is full of guts and glamour.

I don’t want to give away the story. But you can imagine how quickly a tale of someone like Manjhi can turn into a juggernaut – flattening everything that threatens to come in its way. Manjhi is a man possessed. He will not stop at anything – before long he is taking late night trains to Matunga to beat up a man on the insistence of his lover, returning to his shared room with bloodstains on his uniform, and turning up late to work. Manjhi discovers he can effortlessly break skulls and flatscreen TVs, and he has a real, gnawing hunger for mayhem. Manjhi’s story can only get racier from here.

And it does. A lot glamorous too. You would not associate style and pizzazz with Sewaram Manjhi and in all fairness, he does not dress suavely or speak flamboyantly but he knows how to blackmail and how to break bones. On his first expedition to cause mayhem, Manjhi befriends a disturbed old man whom he endearingly addresses as Uncle. The duo becomes an unlikely pair as Uncle forages in Bombay neighbourhoods to keep a close eye on Manjhi’s targets. As they start tasting success, Manjhi does not hesitate to share money and affection with Uncle. They make for a terrific pair and their friendship radiates genuine warmth.

The Robin Hood of Bombay

As Manjhi hunts down more men who have wronged Santosh, he lands up at the home of a bank employee. All the excitement and fervour of Manjhi’s Mayhem reaches a crescendo in this one chapter – spanning a few tense hours, Manjhi holds the man, his wife, and their daughter hostage. He drinks cups of milky tea, abuses and hits them freely, while at the same time learning about how banks make money. At the end of the ordeal, he somehow manages to make the man promise to get rid of his mistress and make up to his wife. With Manjhi all fired up, this scene pulsates with a nervous energy that makes it delightful to read. Taut and tense, this chapter could stand on its own even as a short story.

To me, Manjhi felt a bit like the Robin Hood of Bombay – in the sense that he has his own understanding of fairness and justice, and does not believe in causing chaos for cheap thrills. Until the very end, he’s shown to be sympathetic to mistreated women and unhesitatingly shares the spoils with his elderly friend. Despite a taste for breaking noses and bashing heads, Manjhi’s heart seems to be in the right place. “Kaptaan straightens out crooked people. That’s what he does almost every night”, Uncle says of his beloved Manjhi and confirms that he indeed might be the hero of the city’s underdogs.

I don’t have a big appetite for violence or coarse language, but Manjhi’s Mayhem kept me on tenterhooks until the very last page. There was not a single dull moment, and Tanuj Solanki cleanly wraps up Manjhi’s misadventures in about 200 pages. Every scene is tight with no room for bloated action or dialogue. Solanki keeps a controlled grip throughout and commendably prevents Manjhi’s Mayhem from becoming too full of itself.

The book has superb cinematic value – you can visualise the story unravelling scene by scene. The zingy-ness of the characters and their colourful dialogues are made for the screen. Solanki masterfully constructs the exhilarating underbelly of the city whose stories we have so come to love. I don’t know if Manjhi will be back but I am definitely hungry to know what made him flee his village in Uttar Pradesh or if Manjhi sets out to “straighten” more crooks after settling scores with Santosh’s tormentors. But until then, I will fervently hope that we get a web series of Manjhi causing absolute mayhem in the streets of Bombay at night.

Manjhi’s Mayhem, Tanuj Solanki, Penguin.