Monday, September 24, 2012

The Upanishads taught Einstein all he knew, and other truths from The Krishna Key

Ashwin Sanghi’s books are really all about the research and the intricate theories he likes weaving out of  historical trivia and popular lore. As with his debut, The Rozabal Line and that ponderous political  yarn The Chanakya Chant, this book too is a smorgasboard of wild theories,  historical factoids delivered with mind numbing regularity by one or more cast members, a plot brimming  with contrived dialogue and coincidences ,  and some remarkably clunky writing. It’s almost a pity that Sanghi needs to present his fantastic ideas to us as fiction, as his characters, plotlines and writing skills never quite match the ambitious arc of the conspiracy theories he spins our way in The Krishna Key.  None of this theorizing is really his own , of course,  but pieced together from the reams of research he has painstakingly plodded through, all  of it listed at the end of this book. But it is intriguing  nonetheless, makes compelling arguments for some very far out notions, and  waves high the bright yellow flag of Hindu supremacy (with one belated namaskar to Hindu-Muslim unity) . 

The Krishna Key begins with  a quest for four seals and a base plate, supposedly clues to an artifact of immense power handed down to the world by Krishna himself.  Rather predictably, the one person with all the answers is murdered by a psychopathic killer (the kind who will leave bracelets engraved with his name  lying around crime scenes), and all blame is at once placed on the shoulders of a respected academic with connections to the dead man. As fast as you can yell ’Ha! Desi Da Vinci Code!’, the academic, Dr. Saini,  hares off on a race against time to follow a trail of clues across India, save some fellow academics from similar grisly deaths and prove his innocence. Joining him on  the ride are a motley crew – comely doctoral student Priya, shady lawyers,  hapless cop Rathore  and his boss , a bizarre  policewoman  with a penchant  for squirreling away  nuts and prayer beads in her pockets  (never seems to have a gun in there, though). Livening things up a smidgeon are our killer with aspirations to being the Kalki avatar, the mysterious puppetmaster Mataji and a side dish of the usual suspects –corrupt cops, strange all-knowing fakirs , even stranger gangsters with a yen for history.   There is also this deeply puzzling monologue  supposedly  by Krishna himself,  that precedes each chapter, and that makes absolutely no contribution to the meandering plot.  

By the halfway mark, Sanghi gives up all pretence of writing anything but an academic dissertation  on the location of the elusive artifact– the baddies stand revealed, our  killer is reduced to no more than a gullible student of the year, and every conversation leads to a prolonged and very tedious  discourse on history and the  undeniable supremacy of Hindu philosophy over Everything.  By the time the grand finale -  in the basement of the Taj Mahal, no less - whimpers by,  you can almost sense Sanghi’s impatience to be done with irritating diversions like plotline and character,  and get on with the real business at hand  - the key to the Key, as it were.

If you like your fiction garnished with a bit of everything –in this case, everything from history and philosophy to metallurgy and  quantum physics – and unrelentingly saffron, The Krishna Key is a book you will enjoy.  If you'd prefer a sound story under all that garnish, look elsewhere.

 This review is part of the   Book Reviews Program  at  Blogadda.

Monday, September 10, 2012

About "Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

‘Bring Up the Bodies’ takes up where ‘Wolf Hall’ left off - Anne Boleyn is established as Henry’s Queen – Katherine, the former Queen, is banished and imprisoned, her daughter, Mary, is separated from her and kept distant from court until she will acknowledge Anne as Queen and beg the King’s forgiveness for taking her mother’s side in the quarrel.

‘Wolf Hall’ was high in intrigue and drama, both of the personal and political kind; hence it is not surprising that its sequel should continue the tradition.  ‘Bring up the Bodies’ narrates the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of another character who has grown strength to strength to become all powerful himself – Thomas Cromwell. It is also the story of King Henry’s desperate search for an heir, which Anne is unable to provide. 

As always, the personal is juxtaposed with the political – so the petty drama of Anne Boleyn being nasty to Jane Seymour is set against the background of England’s troubles with France and Rome. From the personal to the national from the domestic to the international political scene, Hilary Mantel captures Tudor England effectively with her broad and detailed canvas.

Thomas Cromwell is an interesting figure – a man of humble origins who is despised by his better born peers but is nevertheless essential – because King Henry will listen to him. A man of decisive action, Cromwell even while doing exactly what the King wants, manages to further his own cause as assiduously.  Cromwell is sharp and honest in his understanding of himself and as incisive in describing the people of his time. And because Cromwell is everywhere and sees or hears everything, it is but right to present the story of the age through his eyes.

A peculiarly restless time and a king who is for change – both in his personal life and in changing the face of England as it was. There is never a moment of repose - the times between events is merely one of waiting and everyone is watchful of themselves and others. Mantel however does not limit herself to capturing the intrigue of court.

“But look never mind all this. Queens come and go. So recent history has shown us. Let us think about how to pay for England, her king’s great charges, the cost of charity and the cost of justice, the cost of keeping her enemies beyond her shores.”

Running a nation is about finding out who has the money and trying to balance the accounts – a task Cromwell is peculiarly suited to. But it is not just financial accounts he balances in the long run – as the Boleyn family finds out to their cost, Cromwell is not bought by anyone or tied to them by loyalty. He is devoted to his country and to doing what his king wants – people are dispensable and Cromwell will help Henry cut his losses whenever the king chooses. 

A ruthless but practical philosophy of life - one completely true to the age it is from.  This is a book about larger than life people and their struggle to stay relevant in an age where anyone can fall out of favor with the king – suddenly and irrevocably. No one is safe and there are no guarantees about tomorrow – for there is little to be done if the king decides you are best left to rot in prison or even beheaded. 

History as it has happened is an oft narrated story but it is hard to not be swept into and carried away by the sequence of events that Mantel narrates. And that is Mantel’s greatest gift – to take the story of the long gone past and make believe – successfully - that they are new and unfolding in the here and now.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Love in the time of alQaeda : Thoughts on 'When the Snow Melts'

Other than Shashi Warrier and Anirudh Bahal – and, ex-diplomat  Maloy Krishna Dhar, author of the controversial  ‘Operation Triple X’ – no Indian fiction writer seems to have considered the thriller genre worthy of their talents. So author Vinod Joseph’s book ‘When the Snow Melts’ deserves some credit for taking the path less trodden, with its tale of a veteran Indian secret agent caught up in a game of intrigue on foreign shores.  The book boasts an enticing back cover too, liberally peppered with pulse-quickening phrases like ‘double agent’, ‘global terrorism’, ’al Qaeda’ and -  the motherlode itself –‘ the hunt for bin Laden’ (a premise dampened, no doubt, by his real life slaughter, but let’s not quibble, shall we?) 

However, the  snows of plot paralysis never quite melt in the case of this book, leaving us with a narrative slow as molasses, starring  Ritwik Kumar,  ace spy- turned- defector, a  bunch of astonishingly na├»ve and technologically backward terrorists , and the poky little house they  must share for the next 200 pages , before one rather contrived  final  encounter  and a denouement designed to surprise  our compromised hero, if not anyone else . 

The book begins promisingly. Ritwik seems to have hit skid row – he is drunk, broke and this close to being brought to book for embezzling funds from his employers. Desperate for cash, he goes over to the dark side, defecting to an al Qaeda sleeper cell in London with a wealth of covert information in his head. For a few weeks, he is kept incarcerated while the powers above decide what to do with him.  

“Finally, when we catch.. (him)… we won’t just kill him,” threatens an al-Qaeda operative midway through the book.  We will have a chat with him.”
That inadvertently funny exchange pretty much sums up most of  this book -  a series of interminable conversations between Ritwik and the baddies, interspersed with scenes of torture, peeing,  and Ritwik making cow eyes and chaste, everlasting luuurve to Nilofer, the luscious and long suffering wife of one of his tormentors/ housemates.  You’d think someone touted as a “veteran spook”  and noted for his acumen in reading peoples’ faces,  would show both restraint and a better sense of judgment, especially if his life were on the line. Not our Ritwik, however, who swings like a rabid pendulum between battering his rather bewildered housemates, pining for Nilofer - or at the very least,  a good book to read-  and then screaming like a petulant schoolgirl  when said pals fail to believe he is truly their ally. In fact, it wasn’t  long into the story  before I found my sympathies defecting towards the sad, sorry bunch forced to put up with their obnoxious Indian guest , and struggling against their better judgement to shoot him dead.

When the Snow Melts has some flashes of humour (not always intended, I suspect)  that livened up my reading of the book. And Ritwik does make for an interesting character study . For the most part, the book reminded me of those old 70s Hindi ‘jasoos’  flicks, like the original ‘Agent Vinod’ (starring one Mahendra Sandhu, whose impressively flared bell bottoms are remembered in ways he never will be). It has all the ingredients that made those movies camp classics - flamboyant wisecracking hero,  stereotypical ‘dushman’, one seemingly helpless babe/ vamp, the blossoming of unlikely  love in the midst of violence. Heck,the book even boasts a’ firangi’  spy boss, which was  all the cue veteran actor Iftekaar ever needed to  light up his pipe, slip into a natty suit and swing by on behalf of INTERPOL.   

My point with this digression? Just that this book could have been a terrific spoof on the genre itself- god knows,  there are several times when it feels close to being just that.  And Ritwik is a character complex enough to retain reader interest.  The book is open ended enough to suggest a sequel; perhaps Ritwik will surprise us in round two?  With or without bell bottoms.

 This review is part of the   Book Reviews Program  at  Blogadda.