Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book Review: Warrior by Olivier Lafont

There are novels and novels and novels. Realistic literary novels bring to you the grime of real life, the sweat dripping off the brow, smiles and tears, joy and sorrow, usually in moderate measure. The beauty of the narration, the quick turn of phrase and the author’s eye for detail, if administered properly and in the right measure, could make the literary novel a pleasure to read, for readers who appreciate such stuff. Chicklits and thrillers are essentially fantasy novels, but attempt to persuade the reader to identify with the hero or heroine and also cling on to the faint hope that all of it could happen in real life. A genuine fantasy novel on the other hand takes the reader to a fantasy land and keeps him or her there on the strength of the fantasy. The characters and settings are so far off from reality that the reader is under no illusion that the story could come true. Just as in the case of thrillers, the prose may not be up to the mark all the time and the writer’s strength of imagination needs to be supremely high and fascinating in order to carry the story.

There are writers and writers and writers. There are real writers and there are ghost writers who write autobiographies for celebrities, or help out those who want to be known as writers, but can’t really write. It is rare to find a celebrity (other than a famous writer) write well. Olivier Lafont, of mixed Indo-French heritage, known to Bollywood fans as Sunit Tandon of the 3 Idiots fame, is one of the delightful exceptions to this rule. A well-known personality in the Indian movie and TV circuits, Lafont’s debut novel Warrior, an adventure fantasy, has been published by Penguin India very recently.

The initial part of the novel is set in Mumbai, in suburbs such as Mahim and Bandra and well-known roads and landmarks such as Turner Road, Carter Road, Linking Road, Pali Hill etc. The end of the world seems to be neigh and Lord Shiva’s son Saam’s blissful existence is thrown into turmoil. Saam leads a humble, non-descript existence as a watch mender, with his live-in girlfriend Maya when the monsoon brings, of all things, snow to tropical Mumbai. There is turmoil and there are riots. People panic and godmen and charlatans reign. The Peerless meet to take stock of the situation and it falls upon Saam, the only demi-God in attendance, to save the world. To do so, Saam who has been living on earth for a few centuries in various guises, has to risk all that he has. Saam’s bout of indecision (before he finally makes up his mind) reminded me of Arjun’s dilemma in the Mahabharat. Arjun had Lord Krishna to help him make up his mind. Saam doesn’t have anyone.

By the time Saam is ready to start his crusade, Mumbai has had heavy showers, not of normal rain, but showers of blood. Saam sallies forth with a few companions and Maya. One of his companions is Ara, his half-brother with whom he has a love-hate relationship. The companions are a disparate bunch – some of them like Lalbaal, Moti and Fateh are very strong and powerful and are not mere mortals, but the scholar Fazal is not only human, but also rather frail. Saam has to locate the Kaal Veda if he is to save the world. What follows next is an advanced version of Star Trek, mixed up with a lot of genuinely good original stuff as Lafont stretches his readers’ imagination to unbelievable levels and takes them to the ends of this earth on steeds which have received the Supreme Blessing and are invincible. And when I started to think that I couldn’t possibly take anymore, Saam and his companions take the Ship of Worlds in search of the Kaal Veda for a trip out of the known world, into a different dimension in terms of space and time. During the voyage, they pick up another companion, Lieutenant Goeffery Gordon, formerly of the British Indian army and its Afghan campaigns. The Lieutenant carries an old fashioned Baker carbine. The carbine and the Lieutenant stay loyal to Saam till the end. Some of his other companions don’t.

Warrior moves back and forth in time and as Saam has brushes with the Marathas, the Portuguese and the Colonial British, Lafont demonstrates his mastery over Indian history and mythology. Time and again Warrior reminded me of the Mahabharata, as the demi-god Saam and other immortals and extra-terrestrials battle each other as the earth lurches towards its end. Lafont’s descriptions of battles are impeccable and there are no repetitions, no easy task when the entire 374 page tome is peppered with fights and battles. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the best thing about Warrior is the way it pushes the limits of credulity. For example, while on the Ship of Worlds, Saam is forced to explain Earth and its inhabitants to a being who hails from a place mostly composed of metals and hard minerals, where carbon is a rare and prized element found only in the deep earth. ‘We are carbon-based creatures. On our world, most creatures subsist on a combination of oxygenated water or air, and a complex mix of molecules. We are organic. That is to say, we develop and grow from absorption of basic elements. In time, we grow old and lose out earlier functionality, till we die.

Warrior is what we Indians call paisa vassol. It is pure entertainment and despite a story line vaguely similar to the Mahabharata, does not come with a goody-goody message. I do not want to disclose more and give away the ending and spoil it for other readers, but I strongly recommend this novel to everyone who wants his or her imagination to be taken for a soaring, topsy-turvy, stomach-churning and terrifying ride.

Warrior was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia prize.

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