The blurb of Sanjay Kumar’s ‘Wings of Courage’ introduces us to Saksham, the protagonist of this novel. In the few lines there, Sanjay portrays him as a truth-seeking hero who is desperate to bring about changes in his socio-political milieu - today’s Delhi of rapes, politicians and sting operations. The introduction makes us believe that Saksham is the messiah, the ideal human with the courage, passion and fortitude, who will show us the way out of the dirt and drama that surrounds the aam aadmi. Our expectations from Saksham’s ‘quest for a more humane world’ are sky high even before we have begun reading the book!
To be honest, the story does not seem to be the point of the book, but since there is one let me give you a quick brief.
Saksham is son to a rich business family with a group of interestingly contrasting friends in college. An MBA seems the logical next step and joining his father’s enterprise the path cut out. However, Saksham’s mind is on a different path. The initial few chapters wonderfully portray his self-examination, with existential questions like ‘Why is there so much pain in this world?’, ‘Why did I let it all happen to myself?’ and those to do with identity and the meaningless of life. Professor Sen’s class on The Golden Rule of Ethics help forward this latent thought-process to envelop within its folds the causes and effects of social evils like rape, murder and corruption. After an accident, Saksham supernaturally wakes up to a realization of a purpose so different from his comfortable living that he decides to fake his identity and work with an NGO to help those in need. With Sneha, his love, and limited time on his hands (I say no more), the scenes move from villages in Maharashtra to politicians’ living rooms to police stations to moving buses to portray places where any form of crime breathes, and how. (And which, of course, Saksham is fighting against.) The story is not a typical page-turner and moves slowly from scene-to-scene for the most part of the book, only to spiral forward in the final chapters.
That the story was written with an intention to convey something and what it ends up conveying form the good and the bad bits of ‘Wings of Courage’, respectively.
The Good – Intention and Realism
When Saksham, at some point in the book, fails to nab a criminal, Sneha says to him:
‘What we appealed for was not success or failure. It was intention. And your intention is as excellent as it can get.’
The same can be said for Sanjay writing this book. In a world where market dictates everything from the book’s content to the book’s commercial success, an author deciding to create a piece of real-fiction knowing it does not fit the bill of a typical success story is extremely laudable. That is because, he had an opinion to voice to his readers; a clear-cut intention, and a seemingly personal one. Without hiccups he lays bare his own mind, as he speaks through different characters in the story. Saksham’s journey of courage is meant to make us see with clarity the muck we live in, and why we continue to live in it. It is a book with an aim that exceeds one of mere entertainment.
Then, detailing incidents of famous crimes from New Delhi’s recent past lends the book with a realism so dark we just cannot ignore it as fiction. Each incident is used to point at larger issues of citizen responsibility, apathy of the authorities and role of the media – the three top themes which rule the discussion roost on social media these days. It is this that makes the book a relevant contemporary read, for those who feel ‘shackled by the inertia of your self-imposed ineptitude’. For some, like it was for Saksham, seeing the idea of ‘evolution is action’ in action may just be very inspiring.
The Bad – Supernatural and Tilted Opinion
Two broad ideas make the book falter in its intent - the use of the supernatural and the lop-sided anti-establishment fervour. Let me explain them in detail.
Sanjay Kumar includes a supernatural element in his plot as a backdrop to his whole novel. To me this angle was completely not required. Saksham, before his accident, is already thinking along the lines of serving others and solving crimes. Why Saksham needed to go on a ‘mission’ with the ‘Almighty’ escapes me, as does the complete illiteracy which the creator of the world projects about a world He Himself created. (The very human Dr. Sen knows more about the world than He does. Foreknowledge is dead!) Then, the conversations between Him and Saksham either read like essays on environment or surveys of global NGOs. The supernatural dilutes the realism that the rest of the book rests on and adds a degree of implausibility which ends up relegating Saksham to a super-hero’s avatar; almost borrowed from a movie and probably where the cover of the book was picked from.
Thinking. Is this the author’s way of saying we cannot have a humane and compassionate living being fighting for injustice without divine intervention? That for all Sakshams to pronounce ‘my life has finally found a purpose’ with an awakened conscience on hospital beds we need none other than God Himself? I don’t know!
The over-arching opinion that the book is largely propagating can be summed up as – anti Government (‘evil minds’), pro society (helpless pawns) and saintly NGOs. Which is to say, the enjoyable opinion that you and I love to share over gins and Tweets as we forget citizens' role and put the onus on those in authority for rape, murder and corruption. Sanjay makes all efforts to redeem society, to the extent that while the word ‘corruption’ is used numerous times (and often in the same breath as rape and murder) the word ‘bribe giver’ is not, not even once. Sanjay hangs all the blame on constitutional failures of politicians, parties, police and whole governments. Except a stray ‘we have learnt to betray our hearts’ for a society which turns its face away on seeing a naked rape victim on the road, Sanjay’s book seems uncannily unwilling to hold a mirror to all aspects of humanity. With similar naivety NGOs have been aggrandized beyond any dubiousness. The anti-government fervour comes down like a house of cards when at various places you realize that governments are in fact doing what he is making NGOs do in the book.
Sweeping brush strokes like saying that within the police service ‘authority is favoured over rational and creative thinking’ and that for our leaders ‘it is a perfect world for them already; they have all the luxuries they ever wished for. For them, changing the world is like shooting in their own foot’ make the opining seem simplistic. The author in turn seems to want to create two homogenous sects - of Authority on one side and People on the other. Is that possible, really?
The only thing I wanted to know now was what alternatives the book was offering to do with all that is amiss with the country. Which then takes me to a very grey area of the book!
The Grey – When courage means to kill
For all the talk and deeds of conscience and humanity that the book begins with, in Saksham and in Prof. Sen it strangely ends up endorsing cold-blooded murder in the name of justice. If the book was a self, this would be its contradiction. This also seems to be the only ‘solution’ that we are being offered against corrupt politicians or for juvenile rapists who have been allowed to walk free.
It may with you, but this ‘freedom fighter’ idea does not agree with me. I have a problem with donning a Bhagat Singh mask and shooting at will. Because, isn’t letting a well-meaning citizen shoot down a criminal (who the courts set-free) actually a creation of an alternative system of individual authority which is as arbitrary and whimsical as the judicial system is made out to be? (When I say Khaps, do you understand what I mean?)
Each Youtube video that Saksham creates to rouse the public conscience is so similar to political speeches and those of inspirational gurus that one cannot help but smile at the irony, especially because a murderer by all constitutional standards was now propagating (I quote) ‘meaningful action’ and ‘virtue of humanity’. The final nail of irony is hammered down when Saksham, the police man who murdered at will, pronounces at the end of the book – ‘Are we more answerable to our seniors than our Constitution and our duty?’
Thus, when I finally read Saksham’s solution to eradicating the evils that beset us (‘crime, corruption and bad governance’) I could only read in wonderment him using ‘the path of moral constitution – humanity, unity and excellence’ as a way forward. Or laugh when, in his defence, he equates killing as an act of violence with embezzlement, inefficient governance, polluting rivers, mediocre health facilities, etc.
While I was still undecided if Sanjay had tried to create an anti-hero in Saksham, I realized it had become impossible for me to read the message in this bottle any more.
Never before have I felt the need to recommend a book I had so many problems with as ‘Wings of Courage’. I recommend it precisely because its ideas and opinions, theories and solutions and even armchair idealism need to be read about, mulled over and discussed and discussed. It promises to provoke your thoughts and at so many places provokes to be discussed (look how long this review is). Pick it up to see where you stand in the grand scheme of things, for as it sums up our surroundings for us it might just prove to be a call for action for those who agree with Sanjay’s version.
For me, ‘Wings of Courage’ failed to rise above popular opinions seen in social media forums to give the reader a thought-out judgement of why what ails our society and how we can get rid of it. It is for this reason that I say the book is not for a niche audience but actually for all of us who like to discuss a little bit of sarkar with our morning cups of tea!
Title: Wings of Courage
Author: Sanjay Kumar
Publisher: Notion Press
[The review was commissioned by the author. The views are my own.]