The Indian Thriller

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Review of books Lashkar, Salim Must Die and Blowback by Mukul Deva

LashkarThere are certain gaps in the generous Indian outflow of fiction – the detective novel for example and, the thriller. The reason for the latter has been a little difficult to comprehend considering the fact that in India we certainly live in interesting times. And, after the serial explosions in various Indian cities and 26/11, life may not be as taken for granted again.

Now, however, the vacuum in the thriller field has been filled very effectively. Mukul Deva’s three novels, Lashkar and its sequels Salim Must Die and Blowback step into a territory that has become very familiar to everyone, whether in India or around the world: the clear and present danger of cross border terrorism. The heroes and villains are the expected ones, with strategy and cross border conflicts detailed as a result of painstaking research.

Mukul Deva proudly says he puts in four hours research every morning – which was not really that necessary for Lashkar, but vital where Salim Must Die was concerned because the novel goes into global terrorism territory and throws up all kinds of dizzying international links that few readers would have imagined existed. Blowback again presumably required a study of newspaper reports to follow the patterns of the various bomb blasts and the Indian cities they affected.

Along the way, Deva attempts to provide insights into the nature of terrorism, along with information on weaponry and terrorist vocabulary. For example we learn that Al Qaida actually means ‘the database’ because it is a list of names and locations. Or we are told how a certain kind of heat seeking missile works. These explanations owe their inspiration to Tom Clancy who has been known to cover over ten pages describing the intricacies of weaponry. Deva on the other hand says that he details as much as is strictly necessary and tries to maintain the tautness of his plot lines.

If you take into account the fact that Salim went into print before 26/11 and Blowback before the Pune blast, you may be forgiven for thinking that Deva has a Nostradamus touch. Lashkar was around for people to have read, but Deva insists that he didn’t pass on the idea of infiltrating a hostile territory by fishermen’s boats to Qasab and his friends. In Salim, the conspiracy is a result of outsourcing by the ISI chief to a colleague in retirement who has access to a great deal of the ISI’s infrastructure, something that actually did happen in the case of the Mumbai attack.

Of course, Deva has the advantage of being a retired Indian Army officer which gives him certain insights into the nature of violence and which is also why he prefers to have a special commando unit working on the heroics.

While the books are complete in themselves, when read together, the plot lines make an instant connect because Salim and Blowback begin where Lashkar ends. And of course, the three novels share similar incidents and characters. In all three Indian commandos skitter across the border and, in one case penetrate a safe house in Murree with seemingly glorious ease. Lashkar and Salim share the same villain, a retired Pakistani brigadier (no surprises there) with the single minded view of world domination that most villains subscribe to. And there is the central character of Iqbal who belongs to Deva’s school in Lucknow and who has his dreams rudely shattered when his mother dies in a bomb blast in Sarojini Nagar. In Blowback, Iqbal’s life seems to come full circle because he infiltrates a group of bombers.

Mukul Deva has the army background to make the details and the action realistic – though he does take care not to reveal military secrets because he doesn’t want his work turned into bomb making manuals. He also exposes some interesting world views along the way – for example the revelation in Salim that the world is composed of Wimps, Nerds, Bystanders and Terrorists which is why everything is in the shambles that it is.

If there is something one can quibble about, it is the lack of a viable romantic interest in the first two books. The brainy Ankita unfortunately doesn’t impress as a living woman and is far too busy being smart to be feminine – we only see her in the context of her computer. Much the same can be said for the other female characters, who seem to exist either to be victimised or take revenge. They have neat little labels but no passionate life.

Blowback, on the other hand does have a well rounded woman character and a love story at its core – as if Deva was taking into account the fact that women according to research are avid thriller buyers. The reader is involved with Tehnaz and Iqbal and what will happen to them. However, the rest of the characters still need to be fleshed out because the good stay pleasantly good and bad nastily bad without too many undercurrents.

Compare Deva to Ludlum or Frederick Forsyth and you may find his plots a trifle simplistic but the books are entertaining to read for their sheer thrill value. Activists may quarrel with Deva’s politics, but those tired of wondering what happened why and who did it in the weary world of realpolitik will be able to curl up with his novels and feel briefly on top of the situation.

You can also read a mini interview ‘Mukul Deva talks to Curious Book Fans’

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by Mukul Deva

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Written by Anjana Basu