Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Prey By The Ganges by Hemant Kumar

A fairly taut and gripping tale, Prey By The Ganges does manage to hold your interest until the very end.

Debutant author Hemant Kumar has impressed with his maiden offering and will certainly be someone to watch out for in the future.

The book jacket cover instantly grabs your attention; you want to read it, and once you start ... you cannot really put it down until the last page has been turned.

The book feels good to hold and I don't really recollect any editing errors; so if at all there were any, they must have been really negligible. And that certainly added to the reading pleasure.

Though the book cover does give away some clues about the story resting within its pages, it still manages to withhold most of it.

The storyline: Set in 1948, deep in the heart of eastern India, this is a story of fate, of fortune, of friendship, of rage and resistance, of indefatigable courage and steadfastness; and of relationship in all its myriad shades.

Stories of women and some men - reaching across great divides - in one of the most treacherous terrains on earth where turmoil reigns and violence against women is unchecked.

I won't exactly call this one a "slice of life," but one that borrows copiously from it; it is an intense tale woven with poverty, abuse, lies, trickery, and mayhem ... but is ultimately a tale of survival.

It is full of everything; lust, sex, horror, grief, etc. are all in abundance on the grounds surrounding the mighty and holy Ganges River, whose waters bring salvation from the cycle of rebirth, and who mutely witnesses it all. Or does she? Can the river - Ma Ganga - heal the healer?

The plot: Two feuding brothers - both young and handsome Thakurs - each with a personal army; they are fighting an endless battle of wits, guns ... and lives. Who wins?

An idealistic young man, son of a traditional bonesetter, picks up the paintbrush instead and goes to live in the mountains, shunning his destiny as a "vaidya". Why does he want a priceless diamond then?

A son of a jeweler, fate makes him a "vaidya". But why is he after the diamond too?

What makes him, a non-violent, unarmed man, handsome and in the prime of his youth, risk his all to douse the anger in his heart?

... And in the process - his journey - does he discover much more? Much that words cannot express, much - that is coveted by all; much that is so invaluable that even a rare priceless diamond pales into valuelessness in front of it?

Prey By The Ganges is the story of one violent night across the Ganges. A cold, rainy night in a forest across the Ganges to be precise - it is the setting for a grisly, soul-shattering bludgeoning; one that elicits a stirring vow from a friend who is more than a brother, a desperate cat and mouse chase and much more. This is also where a young man lies in a ditch, in excruciating pain and bleeding heavily, with a knife through his stomach. Will he die?

Well, don't expect me to play the spoiler. I will not reveal any more than I have already done. So if you want to know more, get hold of the book and read all you can.

The decadent and perilous world of the powerful lords of the land, the dangerous secrets they protect, the liberties they don't hesitate to exploit, are laid bare before our eyes.

Hemant has an eye for detail. Every encounter, every twist and turn, the dialogues, the setting, is reasonably well done.

And even the names - Thakur Gajanan Singh and Thakur Suraj Singh, Thakurain Leelavati and Thakurain Rajni; Gajanan's underlings - Ashok for the slightly respectable one, since he is somewhat of a majordomo; and Baabu, Laalten, Kariya and Bhondu - for his henchmen. Etwari - for the child-woman that Thakur Gajanan ravishes at will; Bahuteri for her mother. Shambhu, the Vaidya and Ravi, the painter. Dhibri - the man who burns corpses, and Hariya - the old ranch hand with angry welts across his body and soul.

Each is a pawn in this bizarre game of life and death, and each with a story to tell. Or hide.

The two characters that stand out are those of Thakur Gajanan Singh and Vaidya Shambhu Nandan. And despite everything, Hemant has somehow managed to de-evilize Gajanan, if I can say that; not unlike what Vikramaditya Motwane did to Ronit Roy's character in Udaan.

There is a sneak peek about corruption and patronage, of monopolies and cronyism, about the rakshak and the bhakshak; and what "independence" did to these monsters. How much has changed, if at all? Has anything changed really?

Hemant has been able to weave what is essentially a violent, rustic and evocative tale with polish and substance.

The limpid writing style blending violence and fear, quiet strength and raw courage, searing hatred and calm compassion, white-hot passion and serene romance, plus much else, in a neat package, is a readers delight. It pulls you into the narrative and keeps you there.

However, one is also left to ponder over whether being armed with moral courage, fearlessness, honesty, sensitivity and all that jazz, mean anything at all, against firearms and weapons.

Time to put on your thinking cap and stop those gray cells from graying.

The author had mentioned during our correspondence that he has written his debut novel with heart, and after having read it; I cannot but agree on that one.

My two pence: The opening chapter is very well done, quite fresh and riveting. But somewhere down the line, some events and characters get too predictable and over done; and that interferes with the taste - slowing down the pace apart from eating up space. While the unmistakable Bollywood flavour leaves the fiction loving epicurean in me less than completely satiated.

Instead of some of the stuff that needlessly drags on, I would have liked to know a bit more about what happened to Etwari between her first 'encounter' with Thakur Gajanan Singh in his inner chambers, and her arrival at the shed - to her parents. I would have liked to be a part of her transformation, her inner journey. That would have been interesting and insightful too ... especially from someone so young, given her history and background.

... And I was and am curious to know what happened to Somwari? I feel her character should have been a little more fleshed out. After all, she made a young man with a promising future leave his world behind, and it is she who is there in the final page too!

Hariya's faith and belief in Rajni, that she would have somehow saved Etwari ... had the latter's father appealed to her instead of meeting the Thakur. Why and how?

Shambhu is too pristine and too 'white' for my taste; a dash of colour and a hint of naughtiness or rakish charm would have settled well on him.

The two main characters in this novel need not have mirrored the popular perception of the two main characters from one of our great epics.

Come to think of it, Gajanan does remind me of the handsome, swashbuckling and horse-riding villain, the devilish Mayurbahon, from one of ace director Tapan Sinha's master creations; his adaptation of Anthony Hope's "The Prisoner of Zenda." Based on a story by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi, "Jhinder Bondi" (1961) was a roaring success. And the young Soumitra Chatterjee as the handsome and dashing Mayurbahon, managed to overshadow the matinee idol of Bangla cinema, Mohanayok Uttam Kumar himself.

So while Shambhu does have traces of the noble-hearted Shonkar Sen - essayed by Uttam Kumar, Prey By The Ganges too reminds me of Jhinder Bondi in bits and pieces.

There is also one or two other minor inconsistencies that could have been easily pruned out, not that they interfere or take away from the narrative.

That brings me to the book cover - it is all-good, very good in fact, but somehow the bare-backed woman does not seem to belong there.

My rating: I am going with a 3.5/5 for Hemant Kumar's debut novel.

Prey By The Ganges is a compelling read; it will appeal to a wide variety of readers. For fans of good fiction - this is one book you'll love to sink your teeth into; that the taste and flavour is slightly different, should add to the appeal.

I look forward to Hemant's future writings with interest.

Parting shot: With an eclectic cast comprising of interesting and solid actors, under the baton of a competent director, I see Prey By The Ganges as having a lot of potential for the big screen, with some tweaks of course.

It could fit snugly into the genre of films classified as 'low-budget movies,' several of which have hit the marquee lately. And I somehow feel that Vikramaditya Motwane would be perfect to helm this one too.

Details of the book: Prey By The Ganges/ Author: Hemant Kumar/ Publisher: Chlorophyll (an imprint of Wisdom Tree)/ Publishing Date: 2011/ ISBN-10: 8183281869/ ISBN-13: 9788183281867, 978-8183281867/ Pages: 382/ Price: Rs.295 (Rs.221 @ Flipkart.)

Picture: The book jacket cover of Prey By The Ganges. Picture courtesy:

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