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 naïve 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.