Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Wednesday Soul

Deliberately moronic’, ‘brilliantly silly’ – The back cover is as much an invitation as it is a warning of things to come, with this debut novel by Sorabh Pant, a stand-up comedian of some renown. If you like your fantasy grim, your mythology revered and unsullied by contemporary cheek, and the fictional battle lines between good and evil clearly drawn, then this is not a book for you. Author Pant takes tremendous liberties with multicultural mythology in this reimagining of the afterlife, with irreverent swipes at everyone from Gandhiji and Jesus Christ to Manoj Night Shyamalan thrown in for good measure. Pant is clearly inspired by Douglas Adams, author of the terrific ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series , and seems to have attempted to capture the madcap pace and brilliant humour of that classic in his book. Sadly, he doesn’t succeed.

The Wednesday Soul’ starts off promisingly enough – Nyra Dubey, aka the Delhi Belle, prowls the streets of Delhi by night, wreaking her own brand of vengeance on sexual predators who have escaped the law. She finds true love in the arms of fellow crime fighter Chitr, a bashful fridge- sized man with a curious immunity to pain and a penchant for blue suits. But just when you think things are looking up for our burly and very surly girl wonder, she finds herself dead. Well, murdered actually, though that fact is strangely overlooked when she is labeled a Wednesday Soul – a subconscious suicide – by the denizens running the afterlife.

And what an afterlife it is – chaotic, confusing, bristling with unnecessary procedures and pointless queues and policed by overly aggressive dog warriors – in other words, your average Indian government office. Add to this a seemingly endless cast - sundry winged beings (Garuda doing what he does best; Ayrawat quite literally turned into a jumbo carrier), cranky Ancients, bickering Council of the Afterlife members,a curiously erudite rescue dog turned bodyguard called Bari , the Sanskrit-speaking shade of Dame Agatha Christie, even Che. Nyra is soon knee deep in action, attempting to thwart a coup by celestials turned rogue, while also trying to survive nasty fates as varied as free fall in space, reincarnation as a beaver and suppression between the butt cheeks of a sumo wrestler turned capo. Things get even more confusing when bickering Ancients Chitr and Kutsa return to the afterlife, where they proceed to wage war over control of the afterlife, banishment of Wednesdays and, almost as an afterthought, destruction of the human race as well.

The Wednesday Soul’ brims with potential – interesting characters, crazy action sequences, some inspired takes on mythological characters . It keeps up a brisk pace, and has plenty of snappy dialogue. But it is hobbled by a patchy story line, bad grammar, clunky sentences (“Nyra felt as if her body would explode with the blood that this stranger had awoken inside her”) and very poor editing. Factual errors and typos abound; all kinds of intriguing ideas pop up through the course of the book, but seem to have been either forgotten or just abandoned as the storyline hurtles along. The narrative itself switches routinely from the main story to textbook mode explaining obscure sub plots and backstory, which struck me as rather lazy storytelling . The plot is also strangely preoccupied with that anatomical part the author terms ‘the badlands’ – the backsides of characters routinely double up as emergency exits, cubby holes for lost passwords or temporary holding cells. (Douglas Adams, it may be noted, managed to sustain reader interest in the riveting saga of Arthur Dent over five volumes without once descending into crassness.) Also a little hard to stomach was the celestials’ fascination with Nyra’s taser – come on, we are talking supreme beings with limitless powers and more than a nodding acquaintance with far superior mythical lightning bolts, vajras and astras.

Far more interesting is the parallel love story unfolding on earth, between the hapless Inspector Sharma and morgue in charge, Dr. Tashiding. Infact, Sharma emerges as the most likeable character in this novel – a Sanskrit speaking Chulbul Pandey, if you will – attempting to navigate a new romance, unexpected fatherhood and communication with the dead, armed with little more than bad English and well-honed skills at torturing suspects. Sadly, this odd couple doesn’t get the airtime it deserves in Pant’s prose. But the open end of ‘The Wednesday Soul’ seems to suggest the possibility of a sequel – or several – and perhaps the ballad of Sharma and Tashiding will get a chance to play out in the wake of Nyra’s new adventures.

Thanks to Blogadda for the review copy of this book.

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