Book Review: 'Death in Mumbai' doesn't tell you what your TV didn't

Last Updated: Mon, Dec 12, 2011 05:38 hrs

Name: Death in Mumbai
Author: Meenal Baghel
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 231
Price: Rs 299

Verdict - Excellent writing and engaging in some parts, gives a new glimpse into Mumbai, but it adds nothing to what endless coverage of the case hasn't told us.

Death in Mumbai is a report on the sensational murder of Neeraj Grover in 2008. Grover was murdered in his lover's flat by her fiancee. His body was butchered into pieces and burned. Despite the cover-up effort the case was soon cracked by the Mumbai crime branch. 

Meenal Baghel has done extensive fieldwork to give an in-depth understanding of the case. She has met and gained impressions from friends, associates, colleagues, roommates, neighbours, police officers and even a psychologist. 

Unfortunately, the closeness only confirms what you already knew. Apart from the sensation the media kicked up over it, the case had little true depth or complications. It always was an open-and-shut case.

Despite Baghel's best efforts, Neeraj Grover and the lover, Maria Susairaj, come across as cynical manipulators who were vain, boastful and used the opposite sex for their gain. The actual murderer, Fiance Emile, is pretty much the stereotypical jealous boyfriend with anger management and boundary issues. Unfortunately his Naval training made him just that bit more efficient at murder than the average cuckold.

The only really unique insight we get is a touching note about how while Maria and Emile remain front page news, everyone has forgotten the victim - Neeraj - whose family remains deeply shattered by his untimely death. The bit with the police is also interesting. Mumbai police generally get a bad rap so it was refreshing to see how these men actually do their jobs.

There are some unanswered questions but the author has not made any particular effort to clear them or offered any theories of her own regarding the missing pieces.

Now that we got that out of the way, we can get into best part of the book. It is the 63- page middle section of the book called 'Book - II: Three characters in search of a film'.

I initially wondered why the pretentious division into three 'books' was needed. But I soon understood - it was because this middle section was practically a different story.

In this segment, the actual murder takes a backseat as the world these people inhabited is explored through three characters vaguely connected to the murder.

First, we see Ekta Kappor from Balaji Telefilms. Ekta wanted to make a film about the murder (she never got around to it). 

We are given a glimpse into Ekta's world - where TV serials are never watched by their creators but created according to what someone's mother thought was nice, where superstition rules absolute and the parties require egg-sized jewels.

Then we meet Moon Das, a long-aspiring actress, model and item girl. She was offered to play Maria in a film version of the case.

Moon Das had suffered a Grover-ish encounter of her own. Her jealous lover had barged into her home and shot dead her uncle and mother. He then waited for her to come home. When Moon came, the main door did not open properly and she managed to get a glimpse of him from the outside. She immediately fled to get the cops. By the time the police arrived, he had shot himself with the bullet meant for her.

Das struggled after that to get on with life and her dreams. As her story spirals into tales about dancing in weddings, we see the other side of item girls - away from the glamour of Munni’s and Sheila's.

Finally, there is Ram Gopal Varma, who actually made a film on the case - Not a Love Story. This part tells you what kind of guy Ram Gopal Varma is. Hint: He is like a list of his films - Occasional flashes of brilliance amid mostly nonsense.

It is in this part that the writing truly comes alive. Baghel has a street reporter's instinct for asking the right questions. The writing is not only engaging but the tale is peppered with little surprising titbits (like the things you would have to provide if you wanted a 'good' item girl in your wedding) which bring the three stories to life.

Success it seems requires ruthlessness and unending pursuit. That feels like a reflection on the entire city of Mumbai itself.

This strange and wonderful detour into Mumbai's entertainment industry ends too quickly and we are abruptly bought back to the mundane murder, which is wrapped up in another 70 pages.

This has nothing to do with the writer's talent or lack of it. The author cannot elevate what was flat to begin with. Hopefully Baghel will pick a more thrilling subject for her next venture or perhaps even write a full-sized book about other, unseen parts and people of Mumbai.