I haven’t yet met Abhinav Agarwal but I can tell from his messages and articles, he’s a serious scholar, a bibliophile, a technocrat and a Mahabharata-junkie.
When I heard his debut novel was a thriller, I was a bit surprised. The first surprise, of course, is that he took this long to write his first book. The second is, that he did not write a scholarly book instead of a thriller.
But as I read through, I realised the book is a wrapper for many messages beyond spies, blood and gore. If the author had intended a parable for how India has come to prevail over millennia, he brings it off.
The novel ‘Predators and Prey’ works at many levels.
In the foreground is a political thriller that grabs you by the scruff of your neck and drags you breathlessly through its 350 pages. Thrillers are not what I usually read, but this put me in the same frame of excitement as ‘The Day of the Jackal’ did many decades ago.
The book is ready to shoot a movie script or, to put it better, reading it you feel you are watching a movie.
The plot is mounted on a big canvas. There are Americans, Chinese and those minions of anyone that hires them, the Pakistanis. And not a few homespun traitors.
A young Indian American who works for the US National Security Agency discovers how intrusive and relentless the American spy establishment is: every call you make, message or mail you send, the photo you click, trip you take is as Agarwal puts it, ‘slurped’ by the US system. And more chillingly, these needles in the immense and ever-growing data haystack can be retrieved with ease and speed to serve American interests.
This young man steals India relevant data from there, arrives in India and the ride begins and runs without let up till the end. You’ll enjoy the non-stop action narrated with great ease.
I won’t spoil it for you with more details here except to say his plotting and detailing are meticulous.
They say a good novel teaches you facts you didn’t know. Agarwal zaps you with details of cars, gadgets, guns and geographies.
If you have the stomach for the craft of killing, you have a feast here. Agarwal has a schoolboy’s enthusiasm for gory medical stuff. I now know if I drove a barbecue skewer into someone’s throat deep enough for it to come out the other end, I’d cut the jugular vein, sever the trachea and cause a hematoma. If I scooped eyeballs out of someone’s sockets they’d ‘dangle by the rectus muscle.’ I also now know how to fracture someone’s ‘cricoid cartilage’ and crush his windpipe.
Useful information, did you say? Well, I was, in fact, telling you about the verisimilitude the author manages on whatever he describes.
You will enjoy guessing who the various characters are modelled after. The easy guess is the dour, dedicated National Security Advisor. But who’s the Media Moghul who’d sell the country for power and money? Who, the lecher who molests a woman colleague in a lift?
The takeaway for me is the way Agarwal ends up depicting the vulnerability India is under. Pakistanis run an India-wide network of contract killers. Senior bureaucrats leak secrets. Chinese snoop on us using telecom hardware. Americans, sit at a technology cutting edge decades ahead of anyone, monitoring the world round the clock like some boys at a parlour.
India’s existential threat is real. One realises how important that it be led by someone unbuyable and focussed on national security.
Luckily for India, its soil and Mahabharata’s foresight on what works and what doesn’t, are inextricably related -as if they were some well-segued hardware and software.
It is this that has stood by us.
Here’s Dr Ameen Rizvi who at great personal risk, shelters a Rashtriya Rifles commando and his two wards who are pursued by ISI’s contract killers.
When asked by them why he has taken such a great personal risk, he replies:
“Do you know your Mahabharata? When the Pandavas had to spend a year in exile, they went to the kingdom of Virata. They stayed there for a year among people in anonymity. Had Duryodhana found them out, Dharma would have lost. In my own way, I feel I am doing my bit for Dharma.”
This land has been the prey for an unending stream of predators and has prevailed over them all.
Obviously many have caused Dharma to work.
‘Predators and Prey’ available at this link.