All introductions to Shobha Nihalani’s ‘NINE – Vengeance of a Warrior – Book II’ intrigue you. There is promise of angry wars, numerology wrapped in mystery and superheroes with beneficial powers. Most importantly, we are made curious about a vicious Kalingan warrior’s spirit which has risen only to annihilate King Ashoka’s secret legacy. In short, we are promised action, mystery and a tweaked version of history.
A Kalingan warrior’s spirit, trapped in Angor Vat, is looking for a willing human body as a host to carry out its revenge against Ashoka’s secret society, Nine. Tejaswi, a woman harassed by an arm-twisting shopkeeper and her father’s murderer, approaches a tribal witch seeking power to avenge her father’s killing. In her body and mind then the two revenge combine – personal and historic. Akash, Tara and Zubin are three out of Ashoka’s ‘Navratna’ and Nine’s front line for defeating and re-capturing the Kalingan warrior’s spirit making use of this feminine power. And there is Anita, a woman researching her grandfather’s mysterious ailment and subsequent death. The dots combine to culminate in a war right where the Battle of Kalinga was fought. Anything more divulged and I may give away the ‘twist’.
Three questions came to mind when I began reading this fantasy drawing on history:
1. Why is history being awakened? Does the author want to overturn the version we know by rote?
2. Is the alternative presented more conducive to modern thought? Is it plausible?
3. Was the merging of history and fiction seamless?
What I liked
Shobha Nihalani’s historical premise for the story is brave. While we know ‘Navratnas’ as the nine talented men in Ashoka’s court, Shobha adds supernatural to this slice of history and transforms them into ‘men with special powers’ hand-picked to safeguard secret knowledge, with at least three of them placed in contemporary life surrounding us. So what you see here is not a re-interpretation but a fantastical appropriation of a chapter of yore in a genre far removed from that of our school history text books. The idea is creative as well as a challenge to execute, for it needs to deliver a story more entertaining than the real one, and more plausible too.
Now, while Shobha rests the story line on fantasy, she tries various ways to reign in our willingness to suspend all belief, and to keep us rooted in the real. I found this balancing act interesting. From the well-known haunted Bhangarh to Angor Vat, from a village in Eastern India to the actual battle ground of Kalinga – geography helps keep the reader on the ground. What furthers this attempt at plausibility is how she symbiotically connects our world with the supernatural through the constant significance of intelligence agencies, a sharp media and advancements like ‘easy-access communication and smartphones’, because of which ‘these superhumans cannot hide. They leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs to follow’, thus antagonizing the preservation of centuries of secret knowledge. The narrative is rife with such references and help merge the ancient and the modern somewhat seamlessly.
The idea of a Kalingan warrior needing a woman’s body in order to carry out his revenge is most appealing. How a woman is the new-age warrior! How ‘The Kalingan, renewed and invigorated, felt the surge of feminine power.’ How gender assumptions are over-turned as ‘she was going to be his intellectual force, he would be her emotional strength.’ Some of the most enjoyable portions of the book are the ones where Tejaswi and Kalingan speak as two conflictual voices in one mouth, two consciousness so intertwined it’s hard to separate one from the other.
The weak points
The test of every brave concept is in the execution. And that is where the problems with NINE - Vengeance of the Warrior arose.
There is a story in place, which moves smoothly for the most part till it reaches its climax. At some points, the surprise element too pops up – either in the form of strange objects emerging in the middle of ponds or words in red in the most unexpected of places. Important links in plot vary from casually handed business cards in taxis to men in suits or sages with sticks emerging out of thin air. However, while Shobha uses all techniques to intrigue and make this a page-turner, three things constantly stand in her way:
1. Confusing contradictions – We are told a number of times that the ‘Nine are strong and have to protect those whose minds are weak’. However, in scenes of action, we see Akash, Tara and Zubin struggling to overpower the Kalingan from controlling their own minds. Then, while the Senior Six promise to ‘guide them and project our own thoughts on them for their safety’ when the three face the warrior’s spirit, the six are nowhere to be found. In fact, the book seems divided in its opinion if they are actually the chosen ones or simply ‘Nine are not superhumans, they are imperfect beings in an imperfect world’. I wish the book had made up its mind on this soon enough. Honestly, driving around looking for a syringe for antidotes in the thick of things did not seem superhuman enough to me.
2. Clichéd characterization – From the kind of professions they are in to the superpowers they have been endowed with, the three heroes of the book border on clichés. In fact, atop a tower, Akash ‘stood … like Batman’. They reminded me of some of the popular Western heroes, in movies and from comics. Nothing seemed Indian about the legacy they were carrying, while it was the promise of an Indian texture which lures one to pick the book. Moreover, they failed to become individuals in my mind (despite the persistent insistence that they are only humans) and only remained as specific power carriers. The book confidently called Tejaswi ‘conniving and manipulative’ and thus useful for the Kalingan’s brave consciousness, while she was never introduced as that. Also, why is a woman possessed by an ancient warrior wearing ‘high-heeled boots’ in the final battle? As confused as her dress at that point is her motive in the scene, for she/Kalingan admits to Akash that she cannot change the past or the future, but ‘I can destroy your present’. The real aim of this vengeance lost somewhere along the line.
3. Language – While simple language appeals to the masses, it doesn’t help with creating impactful stories every time it is used. Say, in this book which could have grown to be a modern Indian saga. The grandeur of Shobha’s idea which is laudable was diluted by the ordinary language it was put in. If each sentence is on an average 8 words long, and such sentences follow one after the other, the writing seems hurried even when the story is not. Apart from that, the scenes of paranormal activity seemed drawn from movies and those of action failed to raise enough dirt to develop into images playing in the readers mind. The ambient descriptions were not developed enough and even the descriptions of the witch and the voodoo dolls were typically western. But my biggest disappointment remains the way the characters talk and think in this book.
Sample this. Akash receives a message that the Kalingan is back. His reaction? ‘Jeez, what the fuck!’ and you wonder if it is only you who is serious about this vile spirit. 'Shit’ is the superhero word for the most stressful and the most fantastical happenings in the book and which comes at just the right time to take your grip from the scene of action away. Tejaswi talks to the spirit that possesses her saying ‘What the hell was that? Kalingan you have a lot of explaining to do’ and I wonder if they are college buddies. Kalingan himself, that ancient warrior who lived in India eons ago, responds – ‘Get a grip, Tejaswi’. Are we over-simplifying language in order to get readers? Or are we not ambitious at all, even when the idea behind the story demands us to be?
Shobha Nihalani’s ‘NINE – Vengeance of a Warrior’ may make fantasy lovers read till the end. But for me, it does not plausibly or seamlessly fill up those ‘gaps in historical data’ which could successfully transport me to the Battlefield of Kalinga. I would like to think that somewhere Shobha has attempted to show a modern society bereft of the five virtues Ashoka’s pagoda stood for – faith, hope, compassion, forgiveness and non-violence. Perhaps, that is why Tejaswi is one-eyed, to symbolize how seeing half-truths gives birth to vile feelings of vengeance? Just a thought!
Let’s see what Part III holds.
Author: Shobha Nihalani
[The review was commissioned by The Bookaholics. I was told not having read Part I would not affect my opinion about Part II. All views are my own.]