Tanuj Solanki is the author of four books of fiction. His debut novel Neon Noon was published in 2016 to much critical acclaim. In 2019, he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for his short-story collection, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar (2018). Solanki’s second novel, The Machine is Learning (2020), was longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature that year.

His latest novel Manjhi’s Mayhem, a noir crime thriller set in Mumbai and featuring the murderous Sewaram Manjhi was published in November 2022. Apart from a novel, his short story “The Issue” was published in A Case of Indian Marvels (September 2022), an anthology edited by publisher David Davidar (of Aleph Book Company) featuring 40 Indian fiction writers under the age of 40. Solanki is also the founder editor of The Bombay Literary Magazine.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, Solanki spoke about creating Sewaram Manjhi and writing his story, why the crime novel is great moral literature, how futuristic media can transform novels, why aspiring authors should read in at least two languages, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:

Manjhi’s Mayhem is as much noir as it is about Mumbai and all its complexities. Why did you write about the city’s underbelly?
Often, and this is somewhat true in the context of Manjhi’s Mayhem too, what we call the city’s underbelly is actually its working-class belly. The bulge in the main. Full of strivers, full of migrants. I think we all know this, but somehow we don’t carry this knowledge with us. I always did carry it with me. Perhaps because I have always been aware of being a migrant in the big city myself, even if one is from a completely different socio-economic context (or the overbelly, so to speak). What I credit myself for is not having started on anything like Manjhi’s Mayhem until I had the technique for the thing. Had I attempted this novel a few years ago, I would have butchered it.

I am assuming that Manjhi’s Mumbai is not something that you are deeply familiar with. How did you construct, for the lack of a better word, an “authentic” portrait of his world?
I’m an engineer-MBA type, so by training, I solve problems by breaking them down. Your question is about creating a believable character in a believable milieu. What are the components of such a thing? Dwelling place, workplace, mode of transport, identity, verbal style / mannerisms, relationship with figures or events of the past, current relationships, outlook on sex, outlook on money, politics, and so on. You break things down and you realise that you are not as unfamiliar as you thought you were. And if you can get believable, binding answers to these, you have a legit sketch of a person in a certain space and time. Then it’s about the narrator’s voice, the events, the sequencing, the prose.

Manjhi has nothing going for him – a job that nobody envies, a low-caste identity that needs to be kept secret, and he unwittingly gets involved with the Bad Guys of Mumbai. And yet, Manjhi could be any underdog in the city. How and when did you start composing the character of Manjhi? Despite his violent ways, how did you prevent him from being unlikeable?
It was while writing The Machine is Learning that the idea of Manjhi’s Mayhem took root. I was reading a lot of crime novels at the time, especially American crime novels, starting from Raymond Chandler. The deeper I went, the more the idea that the crime novel was the great moral literature of our times (Jean-Patrick Manchette’s words) deposited in me. And why was the crime novel great moral literature? Because it complicated our understanding of violence.

I didn’t spend any effort in making Manjhi likeable to the reader. Manjhi is what he is, he does what he does. But his violence is adequately complicated, and I suspect that’s the reason why it’s difficult to dislike him.

Tell us a bit about the writing Manjhi’s Mayhem. The style and story are markedly different from your previous works. Did writing an intrinsically violent story alter your creative process in any way?
Each of my books differs significantly in style and story. Manjhi’s Mayhem isn’t a total outlier in that sense. Frankly, I do whatever the hell takes my fancy. There’s no grand plan, and I’m not a worrier by nature. The creative process might be altered, yes, but always for the better. I feel confident about writing the next thing without shadows from the previous ones creating difficulties.

Writing a novel of action, for instance, makes you see verbs differently. In “lit-fic,” someone might twist a phrase. In Manhji’s Mayhem, Manjhi twists arms. Verbs do their work on physical matter, see, not ideas or abstractions. An action novel also prefers verbs that carry impact and sound in them. So less moving into the yard, more blasting through the gate. This training should help all my fiction –that’s what I believe.

While reading Manjhi’s Mayhem, I was enthralled by the cinematic qualities of the writing. What is the secret to achieving this?
Thank you! I take this as a big compliment. A crime novel has to be somewhat cinematic. I don’t think there is any great secret; one practises and gets better at it.

Describe the room, knowing that everything inside a room can convey a sense of the person who inhabits it. Describe the appearance of a new character; you can always safely go the face-hair-clothes-footwear route. Add flavour to the gestures that characters make during conversations (Don’t say “she smiled,” say “she smiled like she’d won a bet”). Describe all significant motions with relish; this is where the verb-repertoire comes in. And yes, describe the kicks and punches calmly; you can’t match the speed of the blows in text, and the reader subconsciously knows that.

The idea, in sum, is to provide enough detail to light up the scene in the mind’s eye.

You write in English. You read books in Hindi and in translation. Do you share publishers’ concerns about the novel dying in India?
I don’t. Because frankly, publishers have no clue. They have no data streams for anything other than stock and sales figures. After that, everything is hearsay and trend-groping. So the novel dying might not be a demand-side comment. It might simply be a case of publishers not knowing how to sell them in a world where the need for stories is expressed in new ways.

About the future of the novel: as a text-only thing, I’m not too sure. Text as the easiest medium for coherent story construction will stay, but the novel will, in my view, converge with home entertainment and/or cinema. We already have text-to-image AI. It’s not difficult to imagine text to on-the-fly audio-video AI. When that happens, you might buy a novel and then have it “shown” to you through a proprietary AI available, say, on subscription. So you won’t read Manjhi’s Mayhem, you will have a multimedia experience with it inside a VR (virtual reality) landscape or on a projection of some kind. Some parts may remain too difficult to turn to images, and how AIs deal with that, along with the fidelity of their output, is what is going to differentiate them. The so-called “low-brow” novel will actually devolve into a screenplay written for ready AV adaptability.

Tanuj Solanki signing his books at Kunzum Bookstore, New Delhi. | Image credits: Kunzum on Instagram

Your story, “The Issue,” was part of an anthology featuring India’s young writers. As a critically acclaimed author, what are your thoughts on the future of English writing in India?
I will say the future is very bright. I’m very excited about all the new stories being written, not least because they are being written from new locations. There still aren’t enough English-language fiction writers from what is usually called the Hindi heartland, certainly not those who set their stories in their homelands, but I think that is also going to change in this decade.

I will also add that accomplished writers need to do more to support upcoming writers. Nothing better than a shout-out on social media. I make a conscious effort to do that for writers who come after me. This is also why I started The Bombay Literary Magazine in 2013 to offer space to new writers. Anil Menon’s leadership and resourcefulness have taken TBLM to the next level this past year.

As a relatively new author, is there a way to strike a balance between being commercially successful and writing “good” literature?
While I understand why the Indian reader’s experience would make them see the two as opposite ends of a pole, I don’t find any god-given contradiction between commercially successful writing and “good” literature. Personally, I don’t attempt to strike any balance, I just write what I want to. Its quality is not for my judgment, and its commercial success or failure is out of my hands. All I can do is write what I aim to.

What would be the one piece of advice or one learning experience you would like to share with writers who are just starting out?
I probably don’t/can’t do some of these myself, but…work out, eat to live, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke, invest in building strong friendships, find three honest readers, find a way to get 10,000 followers on Instagram before your first book contract, learn to edit on the phone, don’t get into very big projects very early, don’t fall in love with stationery and desk-aesthetics, write fast when you do, read with an intent to learn writing, read in at least two languages, read poetry, demand good money for your writing, be available for people who love you even if it’s at the cost of writing, don’t equate honesty with brutality when giving feedback, and take time to see really see what’s happening around you.

Will there be a sequel or even a prequel to Manjhi’s Mayhem?
I most definitely want to write a series of Manjhi novels. I have started on the second one, in fact: it starts pretty much where the first one ends. But I guess Manjhi’s Mayhem has to do well for the publisher to be enticed.

Books written by Tanuj Solanki. | Picture credits" @brijwaasi on Twitter.