When you read - “Quantum Physics meets Bible and Vedas in Background of Kashmir and Cricket” on the cover, 3 things can happen. One, you do no pick the book up fearing a potpourri of ideas mish-mashed together confusedly in the form of a thriller. Two, your curiosity makes you pick it up, since never before have you seen all those areas covered in one book. Or three, you see Cricket and the fan in you picks it up instantly, only to realize later that this is not Gavaskar’s ‘Sunny Days'.
I did neither. I was sent the book for a review by the horse himself. And truth be told, I assumed I was going to take a while to read this book – a genre I call an ‘acquired taste’, much like beer! On top of that, Physics on the front cover did not bring back pleasant memories from school days. Thus, I started reading the book with a closed mind, only to see it gradually open up and get fully engaged with what the 300 odd pages held.
I finished reading the book in a day, and then I thought about it for another.
The winner? Plot.
A science fiction espionage thriller needs a gut-gripping story woven into a plot that holds you. Clark Prasad’s Baramulla Bomber has that plot. Using Swedish Intelligence Officer Adolf’s stream of thought from the book itself – ‘The more one loop closes the more others open up.’ There are wheels within wheels, turning with the help of suspense intelligently delivered. Multiple threads run parallel and even when one takes a back seat, another is born to take its place without confusing the reader. All loose ends are neatly tied up by the time you reach the end of the book, except one, which points towards the sequel. Let me mention some twisty areas without playing Ms Spoiler.
The call Samir makes right after Mansur’s ‘timber shattered’ debut sees him say – ‘Insha Allah we will have our victory and Mansur will bring us freedom, dead or alive.’ It sets the scene and pulls us into believing something that is actually so far from the truth. And just a few pages later, the elderly gentleman speaking to Carina says – ‘The one who we may need to protect is the one we are spying upon, Mansur Haider’ making us sit up and wonder, why Mansur? Saloni’s introduction made me go ‘ah!’ followed by the thrilling skiing scene of action, and later, more truths-untruths came tumbling out. Adolf chancing upon Aahana in Dharamshala, asking ‘who are you … friend or foe’ pushes the plot into a different gear altogether. Coincidences like Ann giving Adolf crucial links to a certain head hunt or magical ones like the little bird which sits on Mansur’s bat propel the plot forward in smooth skilful ways. And then, the carpet takes us by surprise! By the time we are made to realize Mikaela’s musical role on stage we are almost used to breathing out wows. As the book draws to a close, Carina’s thoughts about a fellow Guardian are exactly ours too when she muses – ‘He was playing us all along …’ because we realize we were played all along too! By Clark, of course!
An experimental form/structure which intersperses the text with satellite images, maps, newspaper cuttings, cables, blog posts and even a chat exchanged complete with smileys add to the ‘effect’ the plot works towards creating.
What disappoints? The language.
The Language fails to do justice to the story-line, so much so that you think the plot would have been better off rendered as a movie. Let me give you some examples for pronouncing that judgment. But before that let me add, I liked the cricket descriptions and can see the author knows his game, but my love affair with descriptions in the book begins and ends there. Most opening paragraphs of chapters are badly written. ‘Six hundred plus capacity Alexander Hall’, ‘Come to my beachside property’, ‘Samir took a sharp intake of breath … as he let out the air’, ‘Dr. Nasir … salivated his throat before continuing’, ‘summarise it for me in a few lines’, ‘windy and misty morning’ read either as strange constructions or school-ish ones. Then, the meetings in PMO in preparation for war or in SOG HQ seem more like those discussing who the next floor manager of a BPO will be, and not coming out of the high profile world of espionage. Also, while the plot makes us travel across the world, the conversations that the characters of different nationalities exchange do not seem to come from different geographical and cultural contexts. One world is a concept the author takes to heart, literally. As for direct speech? The plethora of information the author tries to use in the book needs to be explained to a common reader. But when he puts explanations about ‘string of pearls’ and even description of Kahwa as direct speech, it makes us feel more like students than readers to an intriguing thriller. The suspense gets broken by these encyclopedic gaps, if you know what I mean.
The charmer? Agastya.
Since the direct speeches are under-developed, characterization suffers. None of the many characters develop as well-rounded individuals by the end of the book. At best, they remain flat. However, what is cleverly done is the use of their streams of consciousness in italics – not just to give us a peek into their minds but also to propel the story forward with important revelations of plots in them. Full marks to the author for doing that! Thanks to this technique, two characters stand tall above the crowd. Agastya and Mansur, and I confidently call them the mouth-pieces of the author too.
Agastya, India’s Home Minister, is introduced to us as a seasoned politician when he muses ‘when the time comes, we have to ask ourselves just how much we would be … willing to sacrifice’. We are told he ‘didn’t care for war. It was never a solution for him. If people could be won over, then wars could be prevented’. Blunt dialogues like ‘America is a golden goose for Pakistanis … learnt no lesson’ make the author’s mind known to us. When he says ‘The spread of evil is a symptom of a vacuum … moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles’ he has won me over completely. It is only in the Epilogue that I take a U-turn, all speeches on humanity and peace forgotten, as he ominously announces - ‘Dead or Alive, Mansur is going to be made a hero; it does not matter. The nation is important.’ Agastya’s use and abuse of Mansur and real-life like fluctuations between duty and principles makes him one of the most interesting characters to me.
Mansur’s portrayal is not something the author worked hard on. But then, we know more about the author through Mansur. On his morning run 2 weeks after being made a part of the cricketing team, we see him bowing to the Hazratbal mosque and soon to the holy Shivalingam on top of the mountain. The water the priest offers is a ‘life saver’ to him and beautifully converges different religions in his tolerant person. The UN Assembly scene, even though bordering on pure rhetoric, sees the author speaking to us through Mansur about – ‘Freedom from hatred. I want freedom of the human spirit’. Full of misplaced grandeur as the chapter may be, poignant lines on world peace mark his and Agastya’s speech. But Mansur’s portrayal remains secondary to his other more important persona – that of Baramulla Bomber – a persona representing the various themes the book plays around with.
The selling point? Questions.
The thematic questions that the book raises are topically relevant and issues the reader is being invited to realise. Religion, God, sacred texts, wars, world dominance, geo-political strategies, pawns and the idea of ‘I’ and ego, all rear their heads, and not necessarily to be calmed down with answers. They are questions asked, and seeking answers in each individual reader's mind.
‘God’s power unleashed’ is what Clark calls the first atomic explosion successfully tested. That ‘God has been tamed’ through science and that power now lay at man’s fingertips. In God rests such power of destruction? And by connection, is religion a destructive force? The meeting of the Guardians sees the elder confidently pronounce – ‘We can still manipulate this planet’. Is man trying to rise to Godhead, and over-reaching? The speech is followed by his death. Is that a divine consequence of this hubris?
The ancient Jericho weapon to be used itself is a symbol of Hindu Muslim and Christian “unity”, of sounds. The same sound that connects religions now is being used to destroy. Is this the only way different faiths can converge? In the form of a destructive idea?
One can see the author’s religious leanings, somewhat. General Pervez says ‘Damn the Indians … a new world order of the pure will rise’ and that ‘I need to spill blood to bring justice to the holy land’ clearly showing how religious politics breeds hatred, how the idea of ‘pure’ takes a destructive form in the mind of this Muslim. Interestingly, he is the only character clearly side-lined by the author, with his UN speech called ‘usual rhetoric’. Nasir, a fellow Muslim, is the arch villain. The madrassa is shown as a terror camp. And we cannot help but spot an anti-Islam current, can we? However, when the author makes Nasir rely on Vedas for building that weapon, and using a fellow Muslim Mansur to bring him down, we are made to rethink that leaning instantly. So is Clark really saying that all religions of the world rest guilty of causing wars equally? Or is he taking two-steps back from his brave stand that comes across as an undercurrent at various places?
Nasir is using the knowledge contained in the Vedas to wreak destruction. He calls it ‘knowledge from the God’s themselves’. Is he saying, Gods are a source of destructive knowledge? Or is it man’s interpretation of His words? His speech to the military generals in the beginning of the book clarifies that transferring knowledge of the sacred texts does not make it suffer from ‘any of the material defects which the humans also suffer from’. So it’s confirmed then, that man interprets God’s words to his own means and ends. Just like he is using the Vedas in a very anti-Veda way. Even later in the book, Nasir pronounces with hubris that ‘the power is now mine …’ reeking of an ‘I’ manipulating religion and science to serve its own ends. Is not man at the centre of all destruction then? Can we blame God?
The author makes Dr. Tamang answer that for us, saying there is ‘no free will, only universal determinism; every random behaviour has a pattern and it is pre-destined’. There! Now, is religion a destructive force? Or man’s use of it? No. Seems like it was all predestined to happen anyway. Baramulla Bomber, representing Kashmiri youth as pawns in the hands of larger powers is parallel to mankind as pawns in God’s hands. For is not predestination exactly that? So we can hold God responsible, can we not?
And among all the question marks, where is God? Kasha, Carina and Mikaela are the only three women who seem to be in touch with His ways. Kasha says ‘answers lie at the top. Look in the direction of your God. Up! Up!’, Mikaela’s ‘I believe you’ while praying to Him for Adolf’s safety and Carina’s conversation with Agastya at the end of the book ‘There is a power there somewhere … we are just fulfilling our destiny our roles’ makes us close the book with one final question that is Agastya’s too – ‘But which force is controlling us?’
As an evolved reader, I can venture a guess. The force that is controlling us is that which is within us – using religion to feed ambition, knowledge and science to forward ideas of world domination. God is yet to make His appearance or His presence felt. Is that the author’s idea too? I’m not sure.
I recommend this book. For the powerful questions it throws at us to make us think. For the strong plot, albeit expressed in a not-so-enjoyable language. And for the sheer bravery for picking up themes that many would shy away from for all reasons of political correctness. A must-read for those who enjoy thrillers, and a keep for those following geo-strategic politics unfolding around us. Who knows if this very plot sees itself being played out in real life one day.
But I will not say Amen, Amin, Aum and Ogham to that!