Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Butcher of Benares

Blame it on DaVinci Code. All of a sudden, thriller with a base of religion and mythology suddenly became my obsession. I have read my fair share of such books but I was trying to find something with an Indian background. The recently concluded 2nd Pune International Literature Festival managed to convince me to pick up the talked about book The Butcher of Benares by Mahendra Jakhar. While talking to the author, his detailed study intrigued me to read his debut novel.

After reading the prologue, I was hooked and within a span of one day, I finished the book. I believe the story has to have a linear thread, despite being set in different time frame or places. The readers should be made aware beforehand that the title is quite apt for the kind of blood and chilling scenarios presented in the book. You are introduced the protagonist, tough Jat cop from Delhi Crime Branch, Hawa Singh, who might look all brawn with his six foot plus height and hulk of a frame. But he also has some brains to match.

An incident from his path has given him a devil-may-care attitude, apart from a bullet lodged in his brain. He is in Benares, the heart of Hindu world, with his dying father Fauja Singh, whose way of dying is more hilarious than ever. Dying in Benares leads to moksha. And it here on Makar Sankranti that he discovers the floating body of an American woman, amidst the cries of Har Har Mahadev of the intimidating Naga Sadhu. She has a cross stake in her heart with the organ removed.

Hawa gets sucked into a murder mystery of a religious nature which involves the Vatican, the Benares royal family, Hinduism’s most formidable sects (Nagas and Aghoris, bitter rivals) and most important, a cunning cannibal on loose who will not stop at anything to prove his point. As Hawa gets entangled in this rather internationally religious plot, you also meet FBI agent Ruby Malik assisting the protagonist.

What pleasantly surprises the reader is the fact that the book has been well-researched. Whenever the mention of any religious or even historical fact arose, it does not bother you as something out of the fertile mind of the writer. Mahendra weaves these facts without letting the pace of the book down. The Naga sadhus led by an intriguing American Mahant named Baba Ramtirath create a terrifying vision, be it their fierce loyalty for their guru, utter disregard for worldly rules and just mere presence. On the other hand, you have the equally terrifying Aghori sadhus. Hardcore Shiva followers, the revered but mostly kept a hand’s length Aghoris are known to haunt cremation grounds, indulge in cannibalism and known to be masters of tantric art. With these two rival parties making appearances as suspects, you also have a suspicious Kashi naresh with an intelligent but maniac brother who happens to be an Aghori and a cannibal. In between you are introduced to a scheming evil opportunist entrepreneur-cum-politician and his deranged son.

It is these facts mixed with a linear pattern of fast-paced story-telling. Mahendra does not let the mystery or the plot slow down with soppy romantic plots or personal baggage. I found it refreshing clipped. I also found the character sketches on similar lines. The characters are not burdened with endless dramas. You can picture Hawa Singh’s personal battles while solving this case. His father is on another trip of finding death and moksha in the holy city, but it eludes him. So he is on another trip of enjoying life till it lasts. Be it FBI agent Ruby, the mysterious Kashi Naresh Abhay Singh or his Aghori brother Manavendra, the very mysterious Baba Ramtirath, or even minor characters like SSP Neeraj Thakur, each make an impression.

I would prefer calling the language to be perfect for the kind of story The Butcher of Benares is. Mahendra has used simple language with the scenes to be created effortlessly before your eyes. You see Benares in a different light here. Holy is one word which always comes here, but eerie and dark will soon come to your mind. Whether Hawa and Ruby tried to pick up clues or episodes leading up the next victim, all episodes come out with ease.

I have always been a big crime thriller fan, along with mythology and religious stories. It is probably because all these offer me the thrill to picture the written word or figure how it would be. One would call The Butcher of Benares to be quite a heady combination of all these genres. At the end, I was just glad to pick it up for a relaxed Sunday. Mahendra Jakhar, take a bow.

P.S: Benares happens to be on my must-visit places list for quite some time. The book allowed me visit the place without even stepping out of my room.

Title: The Butcher of Benares
Writer: Mahendra Jakhar
Genre: Crime Thriller
Publisher: Westland
Price: Rs 350 (Paperback)

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