Book Review: The Symbol

The Symbol by Varun Gautam

The Symbol by Varun Gautam

There is this strange fascination of engineers with wanting to be a writer. Some take the bait and follow the path, too. But the trees that line the path are old. The ones that Chetan Bhagat planted, or the ones that he rested under. Perched on the same familiar tree is Varun Gautam, an engineer-IT guy with a penchant to write. I came into possession with Varun’s debut novel, The Symbol, a while back. The cover of The Symbol does little justice to the title or the story. If it tries to integrate something that happens in the book then, well… it doesn’t. The back cover talks about the author, who is an engineer, and started writing school board articles (is that a big thing? I don’t know) and has now “taken a new impetus with the advent of his first book.”

The Plot (Spoiler Alert)

There is this strange fascination of engineers-turned-writers with entrance exams. Varun Gautam, tells an entrance exam story, yet again. The Symbol is a story of a young boy Arjun who is preparing for India’s toughest medical entrance examination. A strange character in himself, which the author likes to call “binary”, Arjun is on track for selection in the super-hyped IMS college when he loses focus due to a beautiful accident and an unpleasant incident.
A shallow and self centered person, Arjun is annoyed when his undeserving best friend inherits a fortune. He finds solace in the arms of a beautiful girl. Eventually, Arjun fails to make the cut in his exam and becomes a slave to despair. Life gives him a second chance to redeem himself and The Symbol, supposedly, is his beacon of salvation.

Does he redeem his lost life? How does The Symbol help? Or rather, what is “The Symbol”?

The Verdict

Arjun’s heartbreaking story is told by his cousin Dhruv, who has a half baked sub-plot of his own to tell, which contributes little to the story of The Symbol. What evades me completely is the fact that a book titled The Symbol gives the least importance to The Symbol itself.

Frankly speaking, Varun spends a lot of time giving the central character Arjun a back story and painting the picture of his personality for the reader. Sadly, he wastes way too much time telling you about incidents of the past and people who do not matter. More than half way down into the book, you somehow feel lost and make peace with characters which sadly, do not have an impact later on. The story does gain pace in the latter half, or rather the last quarter but to get there takes time. Varun also riddles the book with long soliloquies about success. While I found all that philosophical gyan a little boring, you may like it.

The writing is not the best or the most entertaining, but the climax somehow redeems the book a lot. Advice for the second book? Well… Try humor, try having fun… And next time you write a book about something, give that thing its due importance.

My Rating: 2.5/5

Special points for a couple of scenes narrated and thumbs up for the cricket story to start every chapter (Totally personal).

Signing off,

Aman

Book Review: Tantra by Adi

TantraDid you know that a Vampire hunter is also called a Guardian? Did you know there were Vampires in our very own New Delhi? Th latest book I read, Tantra, seems to tell me so… and a lot more. The back cover of the book suggests that Anu Aggarwal is a no-nonsense guardian and is out to seek vengeance for her lover’s murder. To be honest, Tantra by Adi is the first ever Vampire story that I have been able to put myself through, not because have an affinity for the modern day suave Vampires but more so because the book focuses on a lot more than just Vampires and guardians.
The back cover does little justice to the content of the book but when it comes to surprises, I can assure you damned well, that there are many between the lines. Though Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves and the Undead are not something that can be swallowed when followed by an Indian address, but I somehow managed to read till the end of it. If I can, so could you; isn’t it?

The Plot:
This is a story of an Indian Vampire hunter, Anu Aggarwal who comes to New Delhi from New York in search of the vampires who killed her boyfriend. Anu finds herself in a situation quite different from New York. Not only have the Indian hunters and guardians reached a truce with the Vampires but the only other guardian hunter in Delhi appears to be an obnoxious fellow who barely likes his job. Problems begin when Anu kills her first Vampire in India only to discover that Vampires are preying on children.

The real problem is when she finds out that it is not the Vampire panchayat who is controlling the blood-suckers but a Baba Senaka who is using Tantra to gain supernatural powers by sacrificing children. She uses Sattvic method as opposed to Tantric to fight the wrath of the uncontrolled chain reaction of Tantra and what lies ahead of her is pure mayhem. Numerous sub-plots keep you afloat all the while, yet ‘Tantra’ is the soul of the story.

The Verdict:
Adi makes an honest effort with this supernatural thriller. For someone like me, who has never been interested in Twilight or Vampire Diaries, a face-off with Vampires was a first. Though Adi omits some necessary details for first time Vampire-hunter-readers like me (like what is the Shift and how it works) but manages to pull of something unique. Though the first 50 odd pages that are meant to set a tone are a little hard to tolerate but the story just gets better with the introduction of Tantra and once Adi has you in his cobweb, it hard to let go until you reach the back cover.

The situations, if I may warn you, are purely fictional and you have to take everything on its face value. Anu’s character is well written and so is that of Dr. Sharma. Baba Senaka is touted as the Mogambo like figure with a mysterious aura and lives up to all the expectations you would have from him. . The sub-plot about her aunt trying to get her married to an arranged apt groom is realistic, but in a thriller, it seems a little stretched unless she uses her Sattvic Vidya there. Where Adi falters is, I feel, in giving a decisive end to Anu’s quest for her ex-boyfriend’s killers; that being the only sub-plot where Adi fails to impress. Packed with surprises and a very deep understanding of Sattvic and Tantric forms of tapasya, Adi delivers a story packed with enough drama to not regret having spent your money on this book

Recommended? Yes. To be read in one sitting? No, most definitely not.

My Rating: 3/5
Had the first fifty pages been better, the rating would have definitely escalated.

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Book Review: RIP

RIP by Mukul Deva

RIP by Mukul Deva

With the recent stirring to life of the sensibilities of the average middle class Indian against the atrocities of the bureaucracy and the rise of the anti-corruption movement in India RIP- Resurgent Indian Patriots comes as a welcome change asking questions that intrigue every Indian each day. Written by Mukul Deva, an ex-Indan Army guy, RIP revolves around a group of para-commandos who rise up against the corruption and take the role of vigilantes. The back cover of the book calls the RIP, ‘Self appointed guardians of a nation seething with anger at the endless scams and scandals rocking its very foundation. Vigilantes who vow to stop corrupt politicians and colluding civil servants.’
With RIP, Mukul Deva, not only delivers a spectacular thriller of a story but at the same time asks the imperative question, will eliminating the corrupt eliminate corruption?

The Plot:
RIP is a story of six ex-army para-commandos who become vigilantes for the people of the country, killing corrupt politicians and their aides. Headed by Colonel Krishna Athawale, the K-team as they call themselves, mask under the name of the RIP in order to kill the corrupt and thus create a vacuum at the top, so that better people may take their place. Set in the backdrop of Arvind Hazarika’s Anti-Corruption fasts (Yes, Mukul Deva fictionalises real life characters, so loosely that it is hard to ignore who he is pointing at and to some extent it gets slightly irritating in the beginning), the K-team are a group of highly trained troops who decide to put their skills to use triggered by the frustration due to the dormant state of positive change in the country. The K team takes out three corrupt targets in the beginning of the story and takes public responsibility for the act. Further, they warn the Indian Govt. to take action against the corrupt, and act quickly; else they will kill one ‘public enemy’ each day for the next three days. It is now that the Home Minister, Karunakaran, who himself is staring in the face of fear officially orders CBI Special Director Vinod Bedi and unofficially hires an ex-Indian Army (court marshalled) officer, Ragahav Bhagat; the former to find the RIP and latter to eliminate them.

Things take an ugly turn when Colonel Athawale finds himself being attracted towards Reena Bhagat, the mother of Krishna’s son’s best friend and Raghav Bhagat’s estranged wife. So now, for Bhagat, killing the Colonel is not his job but has become a personal issue now. The rest of the story revolves around how the three men, Colonel Krishna, Captain Bhagat and Vinod Bedi, and their teams play several rounds of cat and mouse and where they finally end up.

The Verdict:
RIP is a book that will only be enjoyed by Indians living in times of today. Frankly Speaking, no one else would be interested enough in the anti-corruption and the Govt.-public tussles in India. Spectacularly written with exquisite detailing, especially about what goes inside a soldier’s mind during times of battle, Mukul Deva does justice to the genre he picks. The characters are not at all plastic and very believable. Even the two kids Sachin and Azaan who go through a million emotions are described with ultimate finesse. Set in the backdrop of mainly Delhi, Deva ensures to let the city play a part too in the story. Though RIP is the victim of far too many co-incidences, but aren’t moments such as those that make stories great?

Now the subject of story is such that is very debatable and it got me talking with many of my friends, since it raises the quintessential question- Will killing the criminal kill the crime? As for the parasitic politicians are concerned and the ways and means of Indians that we inherit to get past rules, I am pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before an honest neta starts accepting bribes. Do we really need an activist becoming the face of anti-corruption for us and an ex-army K-team becoming vigilantes for our good by holding the Govt. at ransom? Or is it a Faustian bargain that we must negotiate with for our own good?

If one single piece of writing makes you ask so many questions then I must say that yes it is a brilliant book which strums the right chords among the readers. I agree that the audience for such a story might only be restricted to people my age, people with high adrenaline levels but never-the-less full justice done to a good thought. So much so that I am also ready to overlook the sub-fictionalised characters which you draw direct inference as to who may this character be in real life.

To sum it all up, I must say read it, because it is a like a bag of chips that you’ll have to finish in one go and a small part of you might feel lighter having read that some corrupt pompous politicians die somewhere to make way for a cleaner bureaucracy to take over.

My rating: 4/5 and a gun salute for Mukul Deva.

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Book Review: The Bankster

With the kind of expectations an award winning author brings in with his book, one is always on the look-out for the extra element. It was my first date with a Ravi Subramanian book and I was as jittery as one usually is on first dates. The cover of Ravi Subamanian’s latest book, The Bankster looks like a poster right out of a Hollywood flick. The back cover of the book very interestingly and very concisely describes a chain of events in Angola, Kerela and Mumbai that are entwined in this 360 odd page read, yet at the same time, it hardly tells you anything about the book. It is intriguing though to think how a CIA agent in Angola dealing with blood diamonds be related to an elderly man in Kerala who wants to fulfill a promise made to his dying son or how could possibly the two of them be related to the mysterious deaths of the employees of a global bank in Mumbai.

When I read about the author, I thought to myself how different could another IIM alumni write than his peers. Unless he is an Amish Tripathi, should I indulge myself in this book or not? I was pleasantly surprised when I finally found the answer this morning.

The Plot:
It is not exactly easy to define the plot of a thriller novel because of two reasons in my opinion. One, you may accidentally be giving away a spoiler to the reader as you don’t know where he might be suspecting the story to be going and secondly, you may just be successful in realizing how obviously dumb you were while reading and expecting the wrong people to do different things at all the wrong moments through the text. Yes! That is what a classic thriller is and that is exactly what the Bankster is. You can never be right in what you expect and you can never expect what is coming. An undercover CIA agent exchanges Israeli weaponry for some blood diamonds and gets into some big bucks. The focus soon shifts to southern India where a resort owner, Krishna Menon is trying to immobilize his people to get the Govt. of India to answer some important questions regarding the safety of the people in the catchment area of a nuclear power plant. Meanwhile the top brass of Greater Boston Global Bank (GB2) in Mumbai are akin to bending rules and padding their pockets with the bank’s money.

Things get muckier when an NGO gets involved with Krishna Menon’s mission while the head of the NGO helping him actually has his hands dirty and is helping him only to fulfill his ulterior motives. Things take a bloodier turn when the some employees of the GB2 bank are mysteriously killed; one in Mumbai, another, months later in Vienna and then following day again in Mumbai and all deaths are presented as accidents or suicides. This is when Karan Punjabi, an ex GB2 employee and now a leading journalist decides to investigate further as one of the deceased was a close friend of his and the one who wanted to share some classified information with him. As Karan unfolds the true lies of the stories behind the deaths, we find out how the blood diamonds, the people opposing the nuclear plant and the deaths of the bank employees are related and part of a big international money laundering scam.

Who is the Bankster? I’ll leave it for you to find out.

The Verdict:
If you ask me to describe The Bankster in one word I’d say, ‘Brilliant!’ If you ask me to describe it with a gesture, I’d stand up like the Joker and break into a ‘slow-clap’ motion. At no point through the 358 odd pages of the book do you feel like you are reading a novel, it feels like you’re watching a Quinten Tarantino film. I wouldn’t say that that the author takes you on circular trip, but I would say that it is a polygon with many many sides entwining all the events into one big web. Just when you think why the author is ranting about the features of an iPad when he has more important things to discuss, he pulls you back in with a kick straight out of a Christopher Nolan film. Since there are just too many things happening and too many characters, it becomes secondary to pause and borrow the character’s shoes for even a split second but from the edge of the seat that you would be reading this novel, I must tell you that everything falls in a perfect line and sonner or later makes perfect sense.

Ravi Subramanian knows banking like no-one else. That is a well known fact but he also knows himself and his audience well. What I liked about him the most was that at no point does he get carried away with style and yet delivers his message with the right attitude. The Bankster is a confident book by someone who knows that solving mystery is like finding the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and narrating it is like sitting down and putting them together. Now for someone who has written so brilliant a book, I am willing to overlook the 3-4 typing errors I found and also the fact that a south Mumbai ACP suddenly became a DCP standing in the CEO’s cabin of a bank. Other than these minor glitches, I would say that The Bankster is one of my prized author-autographed possessions.

My Rating: 4.25/5 and a very strong word of recommendation for the book. You may be reading a future James Hadley Chase here!

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Book Review: Love, Peace & Happiness

In the busy times that we live in, we love to take short cuts. Everything, except the average height of people, seems to be getting shorter and quicker. From songs to films to T-Shirts and even skirts, everything seems to have faced the short-gun line of fire. Even so that short films are becoming a rage and people my age, would rather learn from short stories than to spend hours reading fat literatures. One such compilation is Rituraj Verma’s latest book Love, Peace and Happiness. A collection of nine short stories set in modern India, this book explores the waters of love, sex, happiness and peace, as the name suggests. What is truly remarkable about the book is that while the author has published nine stories, at the end of each story, he gives us links to alternate endings of the same stories. Also, he asks the user to submit his own version of the endings too on his blog. In a way, I feel, Love, Peace and Happiness is the most liberating book that I have come across. You may not like the ending, in print, of a particular story, but you may agree with another view presented in its alternate.

Inside LPH:
There are nine stories in the book:

Each story is a different take on different people stuck in gullible situations of love, mostly. Caught between the shackles of love, fidelity and responsibility, the author tastes tricky waters of broken relationships, one night stands and uneasy love. Unfortunately, the format of books with alternate endings is such that one cannot comment on the stories oneself, but as far the plot of the stories are concerned, some work, while some don’t, for me atleast.

The Verdict:
What I found best about the book was that it is easy to relate with some of the characters as they are borrowed from your daily life or you have met them somewhere or the other, while you are fascinated by the others. There are a couple of characters that I would have loved to meet. You may find it difficult to logically assess the situation that the main characters face, but in ways more than one, on a deeper scale you tend to disagree with the actions. While reading stories, happy endings are all that we wish to read, but that is not always the case. Similarly, the endings in print, here, are sad and abrupt but you usually see lingering ends of relationships around you, not the way this is.

As far as the writing is concerned, the dialogs are a bit forced. Thoughts are repeated and the print I have did not come typo-free too. Useless details are thrown at your faces through lines spoken by characters, though the same information could have been delivered in the form of a narrative. The writing is too simplistic and when there is a faint line of connection between two stories here and there, you suddenly expect all the stories to be different links of a giant jigsaw puzzle but alas, that never happens. As a book, it is just about okay when you got nothing better to do on a rainy day, but on that kind of a day, the puddles in the mud might interest you more.

My Rating: 2.5/5

Book Review: When the Snow Melts

Spy thrillers seem to be the flavour of the season. And this time, refreshingly enough, it’s not a James Bond film or a Jason Bourne espionage mission, but it’s here and now. Yes, I’m talking about a true blue desi spy story. The story of our very own, little known, Research and Analysis Wing of the Indian Government. Sound similar? Perhaps like the plot of Ek Tha Tiger? Well, no! With Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger igniting fresh interest in Indian spies, When the Snow Melts is sure to impress you. I have never before read an Indian author delve so deep into the intricacies of the workings of International spy agencies such as RAW, Pakistan’s ISI and the antagonist Taliban. Written by Kerela born Vinod Joseph, When the Snow Melts is a story of ‘a man caught between love, duty and a gruesome death at the hands of his captors.’ Vinod Joseph is a Mumbai based lawyer and part time long distance runner. With this book, he explores an array that very few people have done yet and no matter what verdict it is in the markets, hats off to him for the effort.

The Plot:
When the Snow Melts is the story of an Indian RAW Agent, Ritwik Kumar, who works for the IAG (Intelligence Assessment Group) in London. After having lost large sums of his office money in his compulsive drinking and gambling habits, he defects to the pro-Taliban ISI group in order to avert the loan sharks and his boss, General West, both of whom, have given him a two week deadline to pay back his debts. The story begins with Ritwik leaving his house to meet his contact in the Talibani-ISI. He is led to a safe house, somewhere near the Mile End tube station and soon finds himself to be at the mercy of his handler, Ayub Afridi and Junaid, the al Quaida one-man-army and owner of the safe house. Soon Ritwik finds himself in muck as the ISI operatives don’t find his information valuable enough and suspect him of being a double-agent. As Ritwik is put through endless sessions of torture, he meets and falls in love with Junaid’s burkha clad, beautiful wife, Nilofar. Ritwik is forced to give some vital information that the Taliban is looking for, in order to bring down the righteous wing of the ISI working for the Pakistani Govt. Is Ritwik really a double-agent planted in the Taliban or is he just a defector looking to escape the people he owes money too and what happens when Ayub Afridi finds out that Nilofar had been cheating on Junaid with Ritwik, that I’d rather let the reader find out.

The Verdict:
When the Snow Melts is a refreshing change from the usual stuff we get to read from Indian authors. A spy story is something not many expect to read and the insights into the working of Intelligence agencies works really well with the reader. What strikes me most as odd is the fact that after a brilliantly written prologue, the author suddenly switches to give us a first person account of Ritwik’s experience. With the secretive life that a spy leads and the classified missions that he goes onto, it is peculiar to see a spy give details of his mission with no concrete explanation as to why he should tell this particular story. Also, the story begins to a flying start and expectations are raised very high, but unfortunately little activity happens once Ritwik is living in Junaid’s house. Unlike other spy thrillers, the action is mostly one sided, and indoor, and the adrenaline rush you get in the beginning suddenly dies an inside.

What I liked best about the book was that each character fitted perfectly in the role assigned to them and Joseph describes every person and situation very vividly. Having watched many FBI and crime related TV series, I never felt out of place reading the book. Another plus is that the book does not succumb to the clichés and the situations described are very believable. It’s quite natural that a layman cannot relate to a spy’s life but Joseph does a good job at not letting the reader lose his interest anywhere.

All in all a good read. Recommended mainly because of the freshness it brings to the Indian syle of writing. I would love to read the next one from Joseph too.

My Rating: 2.75/5

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Book Review: One and a Half Wife

While the Indian author community is hell bent on churning out meaning-less love stories that can be seen all around you, here is one new author who begs to differ. Meghna Pant, a financial journalist by day and an author by night, picks up a wonderful story to tell as a debut novel. One and a Half Wife is like a dab of fresh air and carves a different niche for itself among the collage of zillions of books by Indian authors these days. The back cover of the book states the story of Amara Malhotra who immigrates to America to achieve the Great American Dream but leads quite an unremarkable life until she marries a Harvard educated millionaire, Prashant Roy. However, that is far from a fairytale ending and her marriage crumbles. After which she is caught between two worlds of obedience towards her parents and new friends who encourage her to move on.

The Plot:
The story begins in Shimla in 1991 when 14 year old Amara Malhotra is taken by her mother, Biji, to several fortune-tellers around town to foretell her fate. The prophecy of a fortune telling parrot says that she will be a One and a half wife some day. Biji, a conventional Indian mother, refuses to believe in fortune tellers who predict bad fate of her child and keeps her hope alive to get the Green Card (American Citizenship) for which her brother (Dua Mama) had applied in the US. The lives of Amara, Biji and Baba (Amara’s father) change gears as they get their Green Cards and head to the USA. The Malhotra family cracks the kernel of the ‘dreamland’ called America to find out the shady insides of prejudices and divides among the Indian-American community, much to their astonishment. As the Malhotra family struggle to cope with their new alien abode, Amara is almost ostracized as an outcast among the American schools which follow a very different culture than what she had grown up in.

While Amara’s Dua Mama was supposed to be a rich Godfather for the Malhotra family, opportunity comes knocking on Amara’s doors when a Harvard-educated-millionaire-Prashant-Roy’s mother selects Amara to be the bride for her only son over Dua Mama’s American bred high-class daughters. Much to Biji’s delight, her purpose of seeing Amara settled in America finally becomes true. But life is not that easy for Amara. As she battles a hollow marriage, her parents struggle to sustain after being rendered penniless due to the high cost of marrying-off their daughter. Amara’s Amercian dream is shattered after six long years of a failed marriage and her parents fail to resign themselves to the fact and fate of their daughter.

Much to the family’s horror, they are socially ostracized by Amara’s divorce and the Malhotra family returns to Shimla after sixteen long years in the US only to find how much India has changed and developed both in in face and facets. Divorced women, still, as they find out are not as welcome here and Amara has to deal with angry parents, goons of the local moral police and battle societal norms as she finds her dignity and rightful place in the end.

The Verdict:
Meghna Pant chooses a very bold topic for her first novel and makes sure that she treats the subject with the required delicacy. The novel, is less of a story and more of a journey that the author takes you along with Amara. On several occasions, one can relate with one of the many characters or their lives in the story at many different levels at that. You cannot help but develop a relationship with Amara and Biji right at the beginning of the story and feel the connection grow stronger as you feel closer to the character with every leaf you turn. The novel takes you to a roller coaster ride into Amara’s life and her relationships and you can’t help but feel sympathy with the unfairness of life with her. Even the little subplots and characters have stories that you can’t help but feel is something that you have heard somewhere. All in all the book is a fantastic reflection of reality and many of its unspoken problems.

The two lead characters of Amara and Biji have been defined with utmost care and a solid foundation is built into the minds of the reader. Every emotion and every situation is aptly acted upon by both Biji and Amara, given the kind of people they are. Although Baba, has a silent, but very strong presence throughout. When the characters act the way you would had you been in their shoes, you know that you are staring not into the words of a book but into the naked face of reality. Frankly Speaking, One and a Half Wife is by far one of the best books that I have read in a long time. Kudos to Meghna Pant and congratulations to her on having written such a wonderful story. What should be said has been said, what’s unsaid, dawns on you slowly but surely.

My Rating: 4.5/5 and a very strong word of recommendation. Order it now, you’ll not regret it. Miss it and believe me, you’re missing an unknown face of life.

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