The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai by Onyeka Nwelue is a phenomenal book in many regards. It has culture, crime, cult, and lust, all packaged in a unique, original voice of Onyeka Nwelue. It’ll make you laugh and smile, until everything fades away in the end. But the novel is not without its shortcomings, like most other coming-of-age novels of recent times. Here’s what I liked a lot and what I did not in my review of The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai.
Summary of The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai
The story is of a young boy, Uche Mbadiegwu, from a poor neighbourhood in Lagos. The young boy, who fantastically becomes a Nollywood actor at a very young age, somehow lands in Mumbai when he grows up. Like thousands of Nigerians who came before him, Uche has a dream of making it big in India and living a comfortable, wealthy life. Sadly, like most others, Uche’s dreams crash almost immediately.
Mumbai is unfriendly, racist, and most importantly, expensive for Uche. Soon, he finds himself discovering, and then joining, the Nigerian drug cartels. Marijuana at first, but quickly moving up to cocaine. For Uche, life in Mumbai is full of women, booze, and Bollywood, the latter a painful experience, like it is for most. Climbing up the mafia ladder, Uche rubs some shoulders, breaks some bones, and expectedly, ends up in jail miserably.
So, at the very core of it, The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai is a very familiar story, especially for viewers of The Goodfellas or The Sopranos. But the Onyeka manages to keep it fresh with new flavours and characters. The novel never seems boring and keeps the reader engaged till the last page. And as it goes, no mafia story ever has a happy ending, and The Nigerian Mafia stays consistent.
What I liked about The Nigerian Mafia
Simplicity of the story
As I said earlier, The Nigerian Mafia has a very simple and familiar story. Thankfully, that’s a good thing. Fans of mafia novels will definitely like how the novel stays true to the genre and never becomes too carried away. In fact, the simplicity is such that not just immigrant Nigerians, but many from the ghettos of Dharavi, Kurla, Govandi, and Mumbra can relate to Uche. Seeing shady men selling weed to classy-looking people from call centres in western suburbs or South Bombay elites is something that most growing in these areas would have witnessed.
Strong Characters with Hefty Backgrounds
A great thing about all the great writers, from George Orwell to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is that they create strong characters. While Uche or Nasir might not be as strong as Big Brother or James Moriarty, they both are likeable. They are definitely strong, but the thing that makes them work more is their hefty backgrounds. Uche’s journey from being a little brat in Lagos to becoming a Nollywood child actor and then peddling drugs on the streets of Bombay is life doing a full circle. And throughout the journey, you see a human, not just a character.
The Life in Nigeria
For most Indians, Nigeria is sadly known for scammers and drug peddlers, especially in the parts I grew up in. During college, I read about a Nigerian conman who sold a fake airport for $242 million! Years later, Khabib Nurmagomedov smashed Conor Mcregor and I came to know about the Nigerian Nightmare Kumaru Usman. My perception of Nigerians changed. Between the scammers and UFC champions, there’s a different Nigeria, a more human Nigeria, that Onyeka shows us. Through Uche, we see the daily struggles of an average Nigerian, some of which could easily be of a person from rural India. That’s what I loved the most.
A Fresh, Striking Voice
I’ll say this straightaway. I want to read every work of Onyeka Nwelue, especially the novels. Yes, he isn’t as refined as Grisham. Yes, he doesn’t have the finesse of Archer. What he does have is freshness and courage. Onyeka’s voice strikes you, it’s nothing like anything out there. And for courage, he’s got plenty. He took Uche to places that most young writers wouldn’t have. At one moment you’ll love Uche, at some other, you’ll fear him. Let’s not even talk about how much you’d hate him, or at least pity him. Onyeka is far from being perfect, but damn sure he’s here to stay!
Raw, Unadulterated Social Commentary
If you thought caste and related issues exist only in India, then The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai proves you wrong. And I’m not talking about racism or ideology-based castes, but exactly the Brahmin-Kshatriya-Dalit kind of caste system. The novel discusses castes in Nigeria at length, without trying to be politically correct or demeaning any one of them. Onyeka even draws subtle parallels between India and Nigeria, and how a Dalit can be friendlier to Nigerians than Brahmins. The novel also digs deep into the issues of human trafficking, prostitution, undertone racism, and more. Yet, Onyeka leaves things open ended on most occasions.
What I did not like about The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai
There’s not much that I didn’t like about the novel. But there are two things in particular that bothered me. And I’m sure that you wouldn’t notice them if you’re not from Mumbai. However, none of those two things stop The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai from being an excellent story. Here’s what I didn’t like:
Do we really have a Nigerian drug cartel occupying Bandra?
I’ve seen Africans – can’t say if they were Nigerians or Sudanese – buying garments wholesale from Kidwai Nagar’s National Market. I’ve seen Africans selling drugs in Mumbai, especially in the west and south. But do they have a separate neighbourhood in Bandra? Do they really have Nigerian restaurants serving Nigerian cuisine in Bandra? If at all it does, I’m totally unaware of it. I’ve lived in Wadala for most of my life, which is just a couple of stations from Bandra. Hanging around Bandra has been a norm, and I do not, even vaguely, remember seeing a group of Africans there, let alone gangsters. If a Nigerian neighbourhood does exist anywhere in Mumbai, I’ll be blown away. And lastly, I’ve never seen an African taxi driver ever in my life.
A foreign criminal rounding up a cop, that too in Mumbai?
Mumbai police is inarguably the most efficient in the country. They are also among the most brutal ones. I’ve seen what they can do to local criminals, even the most powerful ones. If they wish, they are capable of beating the living hell out of the worst of gangsters. I’ve witnessed things first hand that change life and the very perception of it. Thus, for a Nigerian drug peddler, who isn’t even in contact with the people in power, to round up a police officer is otherworldly. Same goes with thrashing a government officer. You don’t do that stuff and stay safe in Mumbai.
Final Thoughts on The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai
If you love literature and want good stories to stay relevant, please buy The Nigerian Mafia today. It’s novels like this that keep the lovers of good stories entertained, amazed, and excited. Sadly, fantastic works by not-so-famous authors lose battles against e-commerce algorithms and lavish digital marketing. I hope that doesn’t happen to this wonderful novel, which shows us Lagos and Mumbai from the eyes of complete strangers.
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.