Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Raavan Key by Pravin Agarwal

Kartik is a self-made entrepreneur owning a chain of successful restaurants in America. He is visiting his relatives in Bareilly with his family in 2019 to attend a family wedding. On the morning of the wedding he goes to the nearby Pashupati Nath temple but does not return.

The family hires Ajay, a private detective, to investigate his disappearance and find him. There are many suspects, including some of the family members and his Indian business partner. These people may have also met the Indian overlord of Europe’s most dreaded crime syndicate in the recent past.

Kartik was in the habit of writing a diary about his life. Ajay starts reading the diary and realises that the key to the case may be in the lost city of Drumatulya, lying buried and lost, somewhere in Thar desert near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The city is mentioned in Ramayana and seemingly existed around 5135 BCE. The city had links to Raavan. The detective names this important clue as The Raavan Key.

The diary also reveals that Kartik’s father Shivam had gone on an archaeological expedition to Jaisalmer with his university mates in 1972 in search of the lost city. Shivam was an engineering student, but had accompanied the group to be with Vedika whom he loved and wanted to marry. Something terrible happened during the trip and he could not marry her.

Shivam has also died in an accident a few years earlier. Kartik now has no way of learning about the terrible events during the archaeological trip, which resulted in many on the trip perishing in a sand storm.

Ajay is told by Kartik’s wife Shreya about an old woman staring at her husband on the flight to India, and murmuring something about the danger to his life. This woman is Richa, a friend of Shivam, and who was also part of the archaeological group.

Hoping that she might be able to throw some light on the case, Ajay calls Richa. As he is talking to her, she is attacked in a Delhi market. The detective rushes to Delhi to meet her.

Book 1 of the Drumatulya trilogy ends in a cliff-hanger as Ajay enters Richa’s home.

This is a fast paced book. A few questions are answered, a few questions remain unanswered. I would have personally preferred to know the end in the first book itself – what is the link between the seemingly unconnected events of 2019 (when Kartik is kidnapped), 1972 (when Shivam goes on the college trip), the lost city of Drumatulya (that existed around 5135 BC), and the crime syndicate overlord?

But then that should be the beauty of stories spread across multiple books – they should leave you wanting to read the next volume, to know what happens next! Book 1 of Drumatulya trilogy succeeds in generating this interest.

The book could have been made tighter by removing passages which seemingly are not relevant to the story – though they help in establishing Kartik as a righteous individual. The book also needs stronger editing, which I hope will be taken care of in the subsequent two volumes.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Thinnai by Ari Gautier (Translated from the French original by Blake Smith)

I first came across the term Thinnai last year in a novel by a friend – it means a shaded verandah at the entrance to a home. I could not resist my temptation to read a novel named The Thinnai – was the verandah a lead character in the novel? I was not disappointed – the thinnai is indeed the lead prop where most of the action takes place.

The book is set in Kurusukuppam, a working class district in Pondicherry. The place has its fair share of all kinds of people – from a few who would appear to be eccentric, to upper class Franco-Indian soldiers who fought for the French in the World War, have now settled in this district, have Creole servants, still celebrate the King’s Day and the Bastille Day, are more French than possibly even the French, yet are Indians at heart and in their acts.

Into this potpourri of characters lands Gilbert Thaata, an old Frenchman, who comfortably settles himself in the thinnai of one such soldier. No one knows where he has come from. He finds a roof and food and good alcohol in this thinnai. He starts narrating a tale to his gracious host, and those who come to the thinnai – a tale of his ancestors, and how they came in possession of a precious stone, the Curse of Sita. His wrinkled experience understands the human psychology – this free life of relative luxury is his till he continues to spin his yarn.

Does he hand over this precious stone to his host when departing? Will there be another storyteller?

It was such a fine storytelling that I did not want the story to end. I also wished that I had learnt French to read the original version of the book too. I am certain that Blake Smith has captured all the nuances of the original.