This is an extraordinarily silly and sly book. Let me summarise the story. Hot, sensitive techie exec Arjun Chatterjee has flashbacks from a violent past life. He meets sexy, brainy history professor Sheila Guha because she has been studying an anti-British secret society from the Revolt of 1857 and may have information on Arjun’s visions. But this secret society is not history; it has been revived by a crazed Mumbai billionaire and is once again plotting to overthrow the government, this time on Republic Day.
There are two temporal threads. There is the “now” thread, as above. There is also the “then” thread, the story of the original conspiracy, which begins with a disaffected young zamindar and culminates in 1857. This young radical is Kartik, and he is the “past life” of Arjun. In each thread the story builds up to a bang but ends in a fizzle.
Among the details, a natural nuclear reactor that generates the weapons-grade plutonium upon which the conspirators/terrorists depend (there is one known case in geological history. It was about 1.7 billion years ago in what is now Gabon in Africa). Other details include a scarface psychopathic hired killer, a siren secretary and an ex-commando security chief for the billionaire, an earnest Mumbai detective, an expert aeromodeller, an engineer with a habit of expensive living, a rotten army chief and so on.
As for literary quality, exhibit one: Professor Guha. “She was of medium height and seemed in her late thirties. Her complexion was a smooth honey colour and her thick black hair was tied back in a ponytail. The eyes were brown, a shade lighter than her skin but it was her mouth that Arjun found the most striking. It had just the hint of a natural pout and the smile was beautiful, revealing a set of even, white teeth. She had no make-up on, except a touch of dark lipstick, and was wearing a simple cotton saree.”
Boring. Needless to say, Sheila is single; so is Arjun. Each has one passionate but failed relationship behind them. The second time we see Sheila, she is wearing a skirt. All this to show that she is experienced, confident in several roles, yet incomplete. Arjun, meanwhile, owns a Honda City, smokes sexily and has a carelessly sexy large flat in Mumbai with leather sofas. Of course they are going to end up together.
This is novel-making via the movies — humourlessly self-important and sexless movies like The Da Vinci Code. The characters are cardboard, and the story cuts from scene to scene, pushed along by a plot.
Exhibit two: chapters set in the present are all in roman type; chapters set in the past are in italics. Was there no more writerly way to demarcate the two? Could the author not have left it to the intelligence of the reader? It is not easy to read pages of italics.
Exhibit three: at a crucial moment, the plot turns on a jilted lover, a woman naturally, turning informer. Really the author is most ungenerous toward his women characters.
QED, it would seem, the book is bad. Except that it will do well. It has still a small Internet footprint, but that includes happy reader comments like “Nice Plot drafted well in words. Thrill and curiosity make you restless untill you reach the end”, which tells you about the intended market. Also, author Anish Sarkar — described unmemorably on the cover as “an IIT-IIM graduate and a senior executive” — has paid attention to a certain kind of recently successful book.
I take 2003 as the origin date of this kind of book, and two titles as the originators. One is Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13, a thriller that had the minor virtue of depth of detail and the major virtue of quirkiness of character. Both added to its credibility — and, cherry on top, Bahal won the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The other is Ashok K Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya, the first of his Ramayana series. “About time!” I thought at first, absorbing its slick science-fictionisation of the conventional story. By the time I cracked open the second title, I was tired of the emptily pompous, overstuffed tone (and it’s gotten worse: see his latest, Slayer of Kamsa, where he picks up the other beloved Vishnu avatar, Krishna). Good storytelling, poorly governed writing.
From the Bunker 13 military stream, which includes lesser writers like Mukul Deva, and the muscular mythology stream, which has grown to include such ahistorical dross as Amish Tripathi’s The Immortals of Meluha and Ashwini Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant (both 2010), our author appears to have learned what sells, and put it together efficiently. What sells is history, conspiracy, Hinduism, the military and terrorism. Sarkar’s book, in addition, is ready-to-film.
Read these titles and learn the lesson: if you want to make a best-seller, think jingoism and “righting the wrongs” of history. Bunker 13 celebrated nuclearisation. Mukul Deva fist-pumps the special forces. In Meluha, Shiva leads his tribe against the evil Pakratis, and takes over what is now Pakistan’s heartland. Sanghi’s Chanakya defeats Alexander the Great rather than the Nanda king. Banker’s heroes are very modern Hindu-centric fantasies of righteous leadership and unity. And Sarkar, interestingly, equates Kartik’s well-meant but misguided (and nuclear-armed) opposition to the East India Company with the mad billionaire’s planned attack on what he sees as a weak, peacenik Indian government.
It’s all chest-thumping stuff.