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the author assured me that the book is nothing like the works of the contemporary Indian authors that depend ...
on 28 October 2016
When the author of this book approached me on Goodreads for a review, I was a little unsure, since modern Indian fiction is something that I stay away from. But then, the author assured me that the book is nothing like the works of the contemporary Indian authors that depend on melodrama and cheap titillation to sell their books. I agreed to read the book based on that assurance and a cursory look at the description of the book.
The first 100-odd pages raced away like a rocket. Core characters of the book were all being introduced one by one, like the notes of a Hindustani raga, each given its own gamut of emotions and elaboration. Nanda, the protagonist of the book - or, at least that is what I thought him to be – arrives for work at the hydro-Electrical project site in the Himalayan ranges, escaping a blood-soaked past of gang-wars and revenge killings that have spiraled out of control. Khusru, a Kashmiri youth, separated from his parents in childhood, is recruited by the terrorist groups in Pakistan to assist in the destruction of a dam – the same dam where Nanda is working. Rekha is a Kathak dancer, whose ancestors have all had a bitter taste of the Partition. She is dedicated to her art, a globetrotting independent woman that is willing to wait for the one who will make love bloom in her heart, instead of getting married in the routine manner and spending time like yet-another-Indian-housewife. Now, I felt promises galore in these characters. But alas, the book promises only to deceive.
First, the strong points. Character formation is definitely the author’s forte. He manages to put the reader in the shoes of the character. With vivid descriptions and simple style, the author manages to make the characters come alive. Of course, not all the characters are flawless and necessary but more on that later. Then, sincerity. The author is definitely dedicated to his craft – writing. He tries hard to convey his ideas and thoughts to the reader without any ‘transmission losses’ and it is quite evident in his writing. Also, he puts to good use his wide knowledge gained from past experiences, to depict scenes and situations to make them feel real. Accolades to him for that.
Now, there are many aspects that cause disappointment and deprive the author of a glorious debut. Most important of them all is the plot. I wish the author had given more attention to the plot as well, alongside the characters. With a promising plotline and a bunch of intense characters, he could have worked wonders, but the book does not take off ever. All you get to read are backstories and current experiences of the characters that do nothing to rally the main story along. Nanda gets pulled into a violent life of killings and revenge killings and his backstory is one of the gripping points in the book. But all that he does once he is in the hydro-project is nothing but work. What started off like a burning train ends up as a damp squib. I would have loved to see Nanda’s emotions and yearnings explored more. In fact, his entire story can be developed into a book of its own.
Next is Khusru. Not sure what I am supposed to feel for him, but empathy is definitely not the name for it. Deserted by his parents who run away to Pakistan leaving him behind in his uncle’s care, losing his uncle to the army shelling, recruited by the terrorist groups, his purpose in life is said to be to meet his family again. But his character loses steam after promising much. His promiscuity, for example, is a put-off. He marries a widow - elder than him - from his shepherd group, after saving her from marauding tribesmen. He leaves her to visit Pakistan for training and then sleeps with his Urdu teacher there – an elder and married woman. He comes back to the group to learn about his wife’s death during childbirth. He then marries another girl from the group and consummates his marriage with her. He leaves the group again and marries another Kashmiri girl from the Indian side of the border after some ‘saving’ her. And, then he sleeps with Rekha – again another elder woman. It is as if almost every time the name of a girl pops up in the chapter in which Khusru appears, he is going to marry her or sleep with her. You don’t get to see love or intensity in any of those relationships. And, coming from a character with all the scope for an intense emotional portrayal, this sort of a sleeping around is not only unconvincing but weakens the character’s emotional integrity.
Rekha – just as you think that this character is being woven well and thorough, it falls flat on its face. A woman who is passionate about her art and taking it to new heights, a woman who has been avoiding men all through her life, keeps her modesty intact despite many opportunities to falter, falls head-over-heels in love with Khusru, after she is separated from her pilgrimage group during a terrorist attack and abduction. Oh, she also copulates with him, because it was cold, he is handsome and he pulls off her wet clothes and pushes her down. Any normal reading will prove it to you that it is a rape. But well, he doesn’t even attempt to rape her, as she yields to that ‘musty smell of sweat and his wiry looks’. He abducted her? So what! He is a terrorist obviously? Who cares? He seems young and naïve. What does it matter?! Really??? Are women so easy to sleep with?! The author later on tries to sneak in ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ as the excuse, but that sort of an affinity develops only with some sort of interaction between the kidnapper and the victim. Not just because they kept copulating for a whole night without even knowing one another or having even a meaningful conversation. Also, their ‘love’ that the author tries to push into our brains, towards the last few pages of the book, feels at best to be infatuation or the glee of the woman at finding a vent for all those pent up carnal tensions. Please, let’s not call it ‘love’ and insult that pure emotion!
Another bane is the surfeit of characters that don’t contribute anything to the book except to the page count. Mangu Ram, Sandeep, Rajanish, Katarina, Rafiq, Mukesh, Sherah and a few more come and go, as standalone characters, without being fused into the tale in a meaningful manner. Equally tedious is the technicality crammed into the book. It would have been better if the author had kept the technicalities and jargon to the minimum or stopped with a general explanation of the hydro-electrical projects in a separate chapter. Another dreaded aspect is the italics. By italics I mean the author’s penchant for including the transliterated vernacular words and phrases every now and then. While they help in adding a local flavor to the tale and help you feel in place, they are over-utilized to the extent of your coming across them almost every other page. Beyond a point, it gets annoying to read a word in italics and its explanation filling the next couple of lines. A seasoned editor could have helped the author avoid these pitfalls and trim the book by at least 50-odd pages, improving the book’s tempo.
Then the Dhauladhar ranges. During the run-up to the tale, the author creates a lot of expectations in your mind about the role these mountains, the stage for this grand drama, are going to play. But all that they do is to appear lamely at the end of the chapter, ‘seeming’ to say something to one of the characters and the character ‘wondering’ as to what they mean. Monotonous and lack appeal.
Coming back to the plot, a book that spends almost three-fourths of its length to build its characters cannot end by cramming all the action within two pages. That too through a character that was not given even half the importance of what was given to some of the fringe characters. The climax feels muddled and rushed, just like the writing style in those pages, lacking the smooth flow that made the book a pleasure to read in the early pages. It feels as if an elaborate symphony is rushed to its end with a quick beat of rap, instead of going for a classic crescendo.
If you’re a person that reads just for the sake of reading, to pass time, without expecting to gain much from the book emotionally or intellectually, and a fan of ‘young-adult’ fictions, then this book is for you. As for me, I am looking forward to a much better work from the author, because he shows a lot of promise and potential that remain unrealized in this book.