Shorty Gomes – Ace
Iris C F Gomes
Reading Shorty Gomes: Vintage Crime Stories immediately transported me to a black and white TV era, where detectives were gritty and unafraid of gore. He is quite unalike Christie’s Poirot and, as his creator Ahmed Bunglowala will attest, ‘I perceive the British school of crime writing as too passive and plot-heavy. I write in the American school of hardboiled fiction, made famous by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.’ Bunglowala recommends the reading of Chandler’s essay, The Simple Art of Murder, to connoisseurs of the crime genre.
The stories in the book consist of three long-short stories that appeared previously as The Days and Nights of Shorty Gomes, published by Rupa &Co, whereas the fourth short story, Nagpada Blues, was published by HarperCollins India in the crime anthology Mumbai Noir in 2012. The stories, titled The Dark Side of Diamonds, The House on St Peter’s Street, Long Shadows of the North, and Nagpada Blues, take you on fast paced rollercoaster mystery rides. The reader gets so wrapped up in the stories that an audible ‘aww’ can almost be made out as he or she comes to the end of any one of them.
The central character, Shorty Gomes, is named as many Goans are with monikers to suit a physical attribute or some idiosyncrasy. Bunglowala says, ‘The protagonist operates from Dhobi Talao, which in the 70s and 80s was chockfull of Goans. It was referred to as the Little Goa of Bombay, with the smell of fish frying in the air. So I picked a catchy-sounding name at random and named him Shorty Gomes. In hindsight I realise that the name has a high recall value. Of course now most of the Goans have moved to the suburbs and the whole area is being gentrified, and the old-world charm and ethos lost forever.’
Shorty is a rum loving detective with language laced with a sarcasm and an ostensible contempt for the establishment. Not too much is revealed about his personal life through the first three stories. Nagpada Blues gives us a better idea of his progression towards donning the mantle of an investigator. ‘There are fleeting biographical details in all the stories, his weight (60 kg) and his short stature, for example. Also, his preference for XXX rum and disdain for authority. You will also discern his sardonic wit. Overall he is a complex character—with strong likes and dislikes. By the time he gives up gumshoeing in the last story and returns to his roots in Goa, he is in his late 50s—having worked as a private detective for about 35 years,’ says Bunglowala.
Ahmed Bunglowala worked at varied jobs, much like his main protagonist, before finally settling down in the capacity of a PR person. He began writing the Shorty Gomes stories when living at Pedder Road, Mumbai, from 1975 to1983, in the vibrant context of intellectual associations. His penchant for crime fiction was fuelled by reading the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M Cain, B Traven and J D Salinger, who have, no doubt, also contributed to the air of realism in the stories. A chance meeting with a Bengali woman called Keya Dutt, who happened to be an investigator with a private detective agency, further inspired Bunglowala to continue with his writing.
Having finally completed the first three stories while holding up a full time job at the same time, Bunglowala faced the normal route most writers take: a spate of rejections from publishers, including Penguin India. It was only in 1992, after he had moved to Pune, that Rupa &Co expressed an interest in publishing the stories. The final story Nagpada Blues was written in the confusion of packing to move to Goa in 2010. The theme of relocation is reflected in the story as well, since Shorty Gomes makes a similar move to retire in Goa.
The characters in the stories are clearly grey edging towards black. The plots move quickly and are carried forth with a sarcastic wit that satirises the corruption prevalent in the legal system, and displays the futility of attempting to rein in crime through present legal procedures. The author gives us a clear view of criminal activity as it is in India – be it fake godmen, prostitution operators or assassins. The cynical tongue lashing makes for a good chuckle while exposing the reader to seamy situations and seamier individuals. Bunglowala says, ‘The stories are a reflection of very true or plausible events and characters. The palpably grim atmosphere of the Big City, where everything is up for sale, is very central to the mood of the stories. Also, Shorty Gomes’ recurrent internal monologues provide further insight into the deception and deceit all around. When Shorty Gomes says, “Crime sits in high places—insular and mocking”, he is articulating a very true maxim.’
Expounding the literary difficulties in accomplishing the task of writing the Shorty Gomes stories, Bunglowala says, ‘Firstly, I would say the most difficult aspect about writing Shorty Gomes is to get the mood and tone right. Then there’s the challenge of creating interesting characters like Madam Flora and ‘Big Ben’ Rudy. Lastly, you have to write crisp and witty dialogue. The amalgam of the three makes for racy detective fiction. Of course, plot is a necessity but not central to hold readers’ interest. It is said that you can write gripping detective fiction just based on newspaper headlines!’
The latest edition of the Shorty Gomes stories, which includes Nagpada Blues, under the title of Shorty Gomes: Vintage Crime Stories, has been published by Goa, 1556. But does Shorty Gomes have a future in Goa or is he to be laid to rest after the four gripping short stories he stars in? Bunglowala says, ‘Many Shorty Gomes fans have urged me to write a new story based in Goa. I am actively considering this. It will be interesting to get Shorty out of his self-imposed retirement to chase some crooks. There’s no dearth of them in Goa! The wily don will probably be a drug kingpin. Let’s wait and see.’