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Mystic moment

The Avatari | Raghu Srinivasan

The back cover of Raghu Srinivasan’s The Avatari talks about an army officer from Yorkshire, a Gurkha, an Oxford mathematician, and an American mercenary. Nothing, of course, restricts an Indian from writing a book where none of the main characters is Indian (the Gurkha is from Nepal and not Darjeeling), but it requires a certain ambition to choose characters from outside your own culture.

The last book by an Indian writer I read that had a leading cast of non-Indians was Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Seth had spent many years living in the UK when he wrote it, so it was not as if he was dabbling in a particularly exotic culture. Srinivasan, however, is a serving officer in the Indian Army, so the challenge and ambition in writing a cast of British and American characters is probably much higher.

The Avatari is surprisingly, astonishingly, good in how well it delivers on that ambition.

The Avatari: Hachette India, 500 pages, Rs 399
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The Avatari: Hachette India, 500 pages, Rs 399

What separates Srinivasan from Amish and Sanghi is the competence of his writing. In earlier reviews, I have bemoaned Sanghi’s lack of effort in developing his characters, in some cases not even giving them names. After turning in two books filled with exuberant writing, Amish didn’t bother filling the giant plot holes in The Oath of the Vayuputras. It was as though he had realized the book would be a best-seller no matter how it was written, and decided that there was no point making a special effort.

This isn’t restricted to supernatural fiction. Across the genres of popular Indian writing in English, it feels as though almost every book on shop shelves was a first draft that the writer and editors couldn’t be bothered to sit down and rework until it overcame its initial defects. With The Avatari, though, it seems that the language and the plotting have been polished until they shine like an infantryman’s boots.

Srinivasan also avoids one of the worst mistakes that mystic thrillers, particularly Indian ones, make—that is, trying to explain how the mysticism works. This is a double mistake—first, it slows the thriller down, and second, by constructing an elaborate mechanics of mysticism, it only ends up making the reader (or viewer) examine the mysticism closely, and so shatters her suspension of disbelief. As long as the Star Wars relied on a Force that wasn’t examined too closely, fans were happy to go along for the ride. When the prequel trilogy brought in a microbiological origin of the Force, the magic collapsed.

Srinivasan lets in just enough of the supernatural to tickle a reader’s sense of awe, but never gets bogged down in how it works or what it means. Instead he concentrates on filling the book with action sequences. He also gives his characters rich backstories, which together reference the worst of the 20th century’s conflicts: Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola, the Falklands, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Just as with foreign characters, a historical scope this ambitious is difficult to pull off, but Srinivasan stays in control of it, just as he stays in control of everything else.

The Avatari is a triumph of execution of writing over plot concept—something I wish I could say about more Indian books.

Also Read: Excerpt | The Avatari

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