Zombies – what’s not to love? The undead - rising up from their graves in various stages of unsightly decay, shuffling down the streets in silent hordes with a serious case of the munchies- have captured the collective imagination since their first appearance on the horizons of pop culture. As a confirmed undeadhead, I have devoured (eh, what pun?) my share – and then some – of paperbacks, comics, films, and even the odd hit TV series celebrating that kitschy genre.
But for all my fangirlyness, I have to concede that sooner or later, you can pretty much predict plot trajectories in your sleep - the dead rise for whatever reason (usually bioweapons dunnit) , start chomping on the living and pretty much ring in the apocalypse. The world falls apart, the unbitten band into unlikely posses of survivors and slowly journey towards some distant safe haven rumoured to be free of zombies. They also discover that, menacing as the zombies are, the humans they meet on the way prove infinitely worse. There is always one person in the team whose DNA is vital to the survival of the human race, prompting several others to sacrifice their lives to keep him/ her alive. The cast – human and undead- will be pruned in various gory ways, heroes will discover themselves, bonds of friendship forged and one last confrontation occur before said Mecca is found and claimed. One last thing - when killing zombies, always, always aim for the head.
Mainak Dhar, author of Zombiestan, seems to have done his homework, and added some touches of his own. His book follows pretty much the usual plot; his bioweapon, on the other hand, is nothing short of the Taliban’s Last Stand. Unwittingly unleashed during an American assault on a terrorist camp, the bioweapon swiftly slays its victims, only to make them rise again as rabid foot soldiers of the holy war (called Biters hereafter) , obsessed with wearing black turbans, yelling stuff like ‘Jihaaaaaaad’ and ‘Kafiiiiiiir’ at regular intervals and increasing their fold by biting (NOT eating, mind you) every hapless human that stumbles into their path. They also evolve rapidly, learning (or perhaps, remembering) to use weapons, drive vehicles and coordinate attacks on the unbelievers still standing. And the headshots don’t work, guys.
In the middle of all this mayhem, a US Navy Seal, a pampered teenaged boy and an elderly romance novelists come together in zombie-torn Delhi , trying to stay alive. They are joined soon after by a young girl and her brother, a toddler who just might be the key to humanity’s survival. Overcoming all kinds of odds – especially the ones posed by other humans – they struggle to make their way to an army base in Ladakh that just might be the only safe haven left in India.
Zombiestan takes a while warming up, then breaks into an energetic canter that it sustains till the end. The characters are interesting, and young Mayukh Ghosh, our teenaged hero, is both likeable and believable as he falters, then stands tall, on the threshold of adulthood. He also gets his first shot at romance, courtesy Swati, the girl he saves. (Sadly her character is rapidly reduced to ‘frail, victim girl who makes kissyfaces at boy hero every few pages’ - this is very clearly Mayukh's story. ) I also enjoyed the character of Hina Rahman (even if she is too obviously the token ‘good Muslim’among the, um, kafiiiiirs) and the brief cameo by a band of ex-armymen who spiritedly join Mayukh and gang in fighting off the Biters.
Right, now the things that made me go hmm (or should that be ‘Hmmmmmmmmm’ in the style of our rotting, biting brethren) – several aspects of ‘Zombiestan’ had me gritting my teeth. The zombies’ penchant for black turbans seems ridiculous and is certainly pointless to the plot; it also reminded me of the innocent Sikhs and Muslims targeted across America by lynching mobs immediately after 9/ 11, simply because they were wearing turbans. And what’s with the constant refrain of ‘Jihaaad’ and ‘Kafiiiir’, when the zombies can’t seem to say anything else? Dhar seems to have succumbed to the easy charms of racial stereotyping here, much like those mobs. Other slips up are equally glaring - the disease initially starts off as airborne, then mysteriously switches to spreading only through biting . And Dhar just can’t seem to make up his mind over whether guns will fell his zombies or not.
For a book based in India and peopled with very Indian characters, the lead players of Zombiestan’ seem curiously genial and heroic. At the best of times, most of us tend to stay divided over our religion, caste and class prejudices, yet Mayukh and gang manage to instantly bond and stay together till the end. A terrific opportunity to explore those differences, utterly lost in all the gunfights . Romance is all very well, but (spoiler alert!!) in a book aimed at young adults, having your teenaged characters getting engaged seems both prudish and misguided – another black turban moment, methinks. And why, why, why does India’s first homegrown zombie thriller need a blond all-American war hero stepping in as savior - given who kickstarted the apocalypse anyway ? Allegory or another black turban - I'll let you decide.
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