Tuesday 26 June 2018

Book Review 7 : 'A Tiger for Malgudi', by R.K.Narayan.

Man in his smugness never imagines for a moment
that other creatures may also possess ego,
values, outlook and the ability to communicate,
though they may be incapable of audible speech.

-      R.K.Narayan.


Knowledge, like food must be taken within limits. You must know only as much as you need and not more.


Eight years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a book launch by celebrated British Author, Jeffrey Archer for his book ‘Honor among Thieves’. When quizzed about his favourite Indian author, the charming man replied without preamble: R.K.Narayan. It was such a moment of pride for not just R.K.Narayan fans, but also for all of the Indians who lapped up his Malgudi series on national television, not to mention ‘The Guide’, the Bollywood blockbuster of the yesteryears.

The master storyteller of ‘Malgudi Days’ and ‘Swami and friends’ weaves his magic again, in yet another tale set in the fictional town of Malgudi in ‘A Tiger For Malgudi.’(1983).

I’d been wanting to read this book since a long time. A few years ago, I read a passage, which was an excerpt from this book and remained intrigued to read more, ever since. I finally got my hands on the novel and wasn’t disappointed.

In the introduction, R.K.Narayan recounts the circumstances which led him to write a story in first person with a wild animal as the main character. The tale is as interesting as the story itself. A hermit at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, who made news all over the world with a tame tiger as a companion caught the writer’s fancy and laid the foundation for the novel. And a bookmark with a tiger pleading to get into a good book narrowed it down for him.

R.K.Narayan is very modest when he apparently replied to the tiger in the bookmark, ‘Surely you will get into my book but the goodness of the book I cannot guarantee.’ Well, any reader can attest to the goodness of the book being top notch, as his books tend to be.

Apparently, when a journalist quizzed him about why the central character was a Tiger and not a mouse, he replied with his infallible wit: So that the chief character may not be trampled upon or lost sight of in a hole!

It is a refreshing change for readers accustomed to the same kind of books, with human protagonists in them. Like the author opines, humans have monopolized the fiction writers’ attention for too long. This candid tale captures the sardonic weirdness of the human psyche as described by an animal of the wild and proves to be a potpourri that spans from hilarious ironies to poignant realities.


The Key characters:

The Tiger, the star of the story, who relates his journey from cub-hood to old age.
The Captain, a circus owner, who captures, tames the tiger and christens him as ‘Raja, the magnificent’. He achieves fear and obedience from the wild animal, but subsequently pays a heavy price when he falls prey to lure of money.
The Film-maker, who is blinded by greed and ambition, incurs heavy losses in his quest for fame and fortune.
The Hunter Alphonse, a haughty and cunning manipulator who attempts to kill the tiger, although he turns out to be a coward, not half as courageous as he feigns to be.
The Master, the Swamiji with intriguing powers, who rescues the Tiger and brings about the most amazing transformation in the animal.


The Reader’s take on the Story:

This a simple story, with deep connotations. Wry humour, interspersed with reality and ample sarcasm makes this book a delightful read. It is invigorating to read an autobiography of a Tiger whose life is far more interesting than most bigheaded, self-absorbed humans would believe.

The journey of a little cub relying on its mother in all innocence only to find himself alone at her sudden disappearance; to a young tiger finding himself a mate and starting a family, only to end up losing them to the brutality of humans, tugs at heartstrings. The sheer strength of the young animal of the wild, and the arrogant power it wields as the lord of the jungle are thrilling in its portrayal.

The annoyance of the Tiger when mere monkeys and leopards dare to defy its authority, albeit from a safe distance, brings a smile on the readers’ lips, even as the reader roots for the tiger to get even with the said beasts.

The upper hand of the human species is brought out with incredible finesse, when the tiger is captured by a circus owner, the Captain. How the mighty tiger begins to fear a puny human with a whip and unbelievable a mere chair, is almost beyond belief, and yet rings with the conviction of the sad reality, that one witnesses in most circuses.

It is distressing for the reader to see the tiger being reduced to a mere play-toy for the entertainment of our species. The parts where he is starved to sap his nature-given strength, and then whipped for not being able to follow the instructions in human language is heart-wrenching in its senseless brutality.

How an animal as powerful as the Tiger, is reduced to a victim, using simple tactics of starvation, isolation and violence is perhaps the deepest lesson in the book. It reminds female readers of how even several of the strongest women are reduced to being (sometimes weak) victims, at the hands of their overbearing male counterparts.

The undying persistence of the Circus owner in taming the animal is interesting. His marketing acumen, especially how he anticipates the problems and doles out the solutions to them, in his deals with the officials he comes up against, is exemplary.

The parts where Raja is forced to exercise immense self-control, drink the loathsome milk while a sumptuous goat is enticingly close to his mouth, is extra-ordinary. The reader feels a sense of rightness during the scene where Raja’s natural instincts finally win in his war against himself, so much so that one forgets to feel sorry for the hapless goat, while reveling in the sheer speed and power with which the animal kills its prey.

Multiple scenes in the book make the reader’s heart go out to the hapless tiger. Even in the scene when Raja kills the circus owner, it is made amply clear that he does so with no intention of harming his master, but only tries to free himself from intense pain. Raja’s actions are entirely justified, given the inhumane torture that he suffers at the hands of selfish and greedy humans.

It is endearing to see the animal express surprise at his own strength, and the wonder, when he realizes that he’d been afraid of such a weak being such as a human and a lifeless thing such as a chair!

Raja’s observations of the unique love-hate relationship shared by the circus owner and his wife are awe-inspiring and showcase the author’s in-depth understanding of the complexity of human relationships, especially between spouses. The conversations between Raja and the other animals are funny and saddening in equal measure.

The film-maker’s pathetic ministrations to the Captain, to fulfill his movie-making ambitions and then his complete turn-around, when he wields the reins of influence are fascinating.

The cowardly antics of a massive muscleman, who incidentally turns out to be the Tiger’s ‘co-star’ in a movie are hilarious. The complete turn- around of human beings who lord around in smug confidence when the tiger is caged, only to run helter-skelter for their lives when the animal is free, is bang-on in its portrayal.

Raja’s dramatic escape from the film sets onto the freedom he craves, that only serves to endanger his life, shows us the grim reality of the mere farce that ‘wildlife protection’ is in the country. Trigger-happy, self-glorified hunters making clandestine deals with wildlife officials, who are willing to sacrifice the tiger when their palms are greased, make the reader fume in helpless empathy with the creature in danger.

The panic which ensues when the twelve-foot long Raja, majestically enters the town is hilarious, especially when Raja tries to convey that he means them no harm whatsoever. Raja’s realization that humans were after all, physically far weaker species than himself leaves the reader with a sense of righteous propriety that has long been due to the animal.

The part where people flee blindly from the tiger and yet fear for loss of their belongings/money, in times of peril, more than they fear for their lives, is shamefully consistent with the materialism of the human race.

The simple innocence of children who find pleasure in chaos is brought out with brilliance. The joy with which the children welcome the Tiger’s arrival to escape school is hilarious. Further, the long drawn conversations between the school staff when the tiger is locked up in the headmaster’s room, is an eye-opener to the naiveté of people’s ego, even at the time of crisis.

The ridiculous pompousness of the Shikhari Alphonse is annoying enough to predict the flat outcome of his supposed heroism. His covert deal with the ‘Save the Tiger’ committee chairman to falsely declare the tiger a man-eater, in exchange for a substantial bribe, and hence authorize its execution, makes the reader’s blood boil at the blatant corruption in the country.

The arrival of the Swamiji, whom Raja refers to as Master is the best turning point in the tiger’s life. The mystic twist in the tale, wherein the surreal transformation of a wild animal into an almost docile creature with noble connotations occurs, is almost too good to be true.


The Conclusion:

The book forces the reader to empathize with the feelings of a mute, magnificent animal. A host of lessons are to be learned from a story such as this one.

It is hard to maintain a disconnect between fiction and reality because the story revolves close to stark authenticity, largely uncomfortably so, for the reader.

And multiple parts in the story prove that no matter how long and hard man believes and attempts to control or defy the laws of nature, natural instincts of animals shall prevail in the end.

This is a must-read, not just for animal lovers but for all those who love breezy reading with ample experiences to glean, from the revelations of a creature of the wild.



Mutual communication was one privilege left for us animals. Human beings could not interfere with our freedom of speech because they never suspect we have our own codes, signals and idioms.

I wanted to scream loudly, ‘Oh Captain, don’t be foolhardy. Your life is in danger, go away, leave me alone before calamity befalls you.’ But he was drunk with authority.

It was surprising that such a flimsy creature, no better than a membrane stretched over some thin framework , with so little stuff inside , should have held me in fear for so long.

You, nearest to me, hugging the cash box, you are craven with fear, afraid even to breathe. Go on, count the cash if that’s your pleasure. I just want to watch, that’s all…

‘And leave the tiger in charge of the school?’ asked the acting headmaster with untimely irony.

‘Never use the word ‘Beast’ or ‘Brute’.  They are ugly words coined by man in his arrogance. The human being thinks all other creatures are beasts. Awful word!’

‘You are asking a profound question. I’ve no idea who I am. All my life I’ve been trying to find the answer. Are you sure you know who you are?’

‘Do you mean to say,’ Alphonse asked contemptuously, ‘that you run a school like this without a ladder.’

Life or death is in no one’s hands: you can tdie by willing or escapre death by determination. A great power has determined the number of breaths for each individual, who can neither stop them nor prolong…

No one had the right to bother me. I was enjoying my freedom…
Next time anyone displayed the whip…I would know what to do...just a pat with my paw, I realized was sufficient to ward off any pugnacious design.

You need not fear; he has only the appearance of a tiger, but he is not one - inside he is no different from you and me.

A change is coming; you will have to start a new life, a different one…

He shut the door again, pulled the table into position, and put a chair on it, then another chair and a stool, went up step by step to reach the loft, saying to himself, ‘How the headmaster reached here will remain a mystery…’

Tiger-man , put a collar and chain around your pet, we are terrified…

You should not need a tiger to keep the peace.

…lost in the thrill of the moment and relished the taste of warm flesh and blood, a luxury Id missed in the circus, where stale meat was thrown out of buckets at feeding time, by butchers on contract. It might be any meant, no way of knowing, might be a dog’s or a donkey’s, dull tasting since the contractor soaked the meat in water to give it weight.

I suffered hunger for consecutive days before seeking food again, but felt nobler for it.

Do not crave for the unattainable. It’s enough you have realization. All in good time.

All the thousands of human beings you’ve encountered since leaving the shelter of your forest life suffer from minds overburdened with knowledge, facts and information – fetters and shackles for the rising soul.

Remember he is only a tiger in appearance…He is a sensitive soul who understands life and its problems exactly as we do.


Photo :©ChethanaRamesh

Short Story 22 : The answers I cannot copy.

Theme: Child character.

Children are an enticing combination of wise innocence and alert selfishness. Writing about children can be tricky, if writers tend to think of a child as just 'child'. The challenge is to avoid making the child extremely cute or exceedingly wise, just to make the character interesting. That is not just too cliché or predictable, but also lacks credibility, because every child is unique, smart and intelligent in its own way. 
And while authors tend to give each character their own special shades, they need to watch out for the common pitfalls that are to be avoided (either too childish or too adult-like); at the same time, one must remember that children are just that: children.

This is the story of a little boy, who is forced to cope with the consequences of his parents' broken marriage and their consequent separation.


The answers I cannot copy.

‘Did you copy the answers?’
I do not reply. I continue to stare at the ant on the floor.
‘Vijay, did you?’ Mom’s voice is not angry. It is kind.
I don’t know why I want to cry. I can feel the sting in my eyes. I try to control it, but it is hard. I never feel like crying when she scolds me. But when she is kind…
‘Vijay, answer me,’ her voice is a little more stern now. The ant is still struggling to drag the piece of biscuit I had dropped earlier. The piece is two times bigger than the ant, but it is a foolish creature. It thinks that it can move such a huge load all by itself.
I want mom to just hug me tightly and run her fingers in my hair. She used to do that a lot before. She forgets to hug me nowadays. She even forgets to kiss me goodnight, sometimes. A small tear escapes from my left eyelid. She doesn’t see it because she is still looking at my Math answer sheet.
The milk cooker begins to whistle. She sighs and tosses the answer sheets file on the sofa. It lands on the yellow foam, which is jutting out of the torn rexene. I see that there is an orange smudge on the spot where my teacher had written ‘I Std, C section’ on the file. I must have spilt sambar drops on it yesterday, without knowing it.
I can hear mom rolling out dough on the kitchen counter. She always likes to make sure that the rotis are nice and round for me. Two soft circles, which I tear into neat triangles, before I dip them into vegetable curry and pop into my mouth.
Today, I’m not hungry at all, even though Mom forgot to give me milk to drink in the evening. She never used to forget when Daddy was still with us…
I saw her crying softly while looking at her phone, yesterday evening. I went up to her to ask her why. She immediately turned the phone away from me and smiled as if nothing had happened, even though her eyes gleamed with tears.
Later, I unlocked her phone and checked the place called ‘history’ where I can see the last few apps that she had opened. The only one was Instagram. I clicked on it and saw that mom had been looking at the picture of a beautiful auntie. But, why did she cry? I then saw a comment from my dad under the picture. It had some kiss and heart emojis in it. It also said, ‘Looking gorgeous, my love…’
Oh, no wonder mom felt bad. She usually cries whenever she sees Dad’s comments for the aunties on Twitter or Instagram. He never comments like this on Facebook. There, he posts my pictures with him and puts up heart emojis only for me. But on Twitter, he has some funny name like ‘LoverBoy’ with some numbers in it. Mummy says it is called as Anon account. Dad does not know that I know about him on Twitter and Instagram. Mom made me promise that I would never tell him that I know; otherwise he would blame her for it.
I once heard Mom tell her best friend how Dad flirted shamelessly with everything that wore a skirt. I understood that flirting is a shameless thing to do, just like copying in the exam. But I did not understand how things can wear skirts. I wanted to ask her but I knew she’ll scold me if I did. She does not like it, when I overhear what she says to her friends about dad.
Mom returns from the kitchen, with my orange Pokémon plate in her hands. She begins to feed me with little pieces of roti dipped in my favorite aloo curry. I eat. I love it, when she feeds me food, even though I have learned to eat by myself without spilling anything on my shirt or on the table.
Her fingertips brush against my lips every time the roti touches my tongue. Her fingers are rough, because of the soap she uses to clean the dishes and wash our clothes. They feel scratchy whenever she touches me, but I somehow like it.
I want to watch Chota Bheem on TV, but I don’t know if mummy is sad or angry. I look up at her face.  The black patches under her eyes look bigger today and her lips are thin and dry. I know that her boss scolded her because she had not gone to work yesterday.
‘What happened in the court yesterday, mommy?’ I ask her, without thinking.
She looks up in surprise. She doesn’t know that I had overheard her talking to grandma last night. Her voice had been soft. She thought I was asleep, but I was listening to her. She told Grandma that the divorce may come through this week.
‘Nothing…’ she replies, tearing the roti into little pieces. The pieces are too tiny, but she goes on tearing them. They almost look like dry upma now.
I feel afraid, again.
I could not sleep last night because of the fear. I know that daddy cannot take me away with him because the judge uncle did not allow him. I never want to leave mom, never ever. I cannot live without seeing her even for a single day.
But, I love daddy too. I want to be with him. Mom cooks and cares for me. No one loves me more than her. But she cannot play cricket and take me swimming at the pool like daddy. She cannot buy clothes or pizza for me at the mall like daddy.  Daddy does not even think about the price of anything I want, he just buys them for me.
But, I don’t mind if he does not buy anything for me. All I want is for him to continue to love me. I am so scared that he will stop loving me one day…
‘Vijay, beta,’ Mommy takes a deep breath. I know what she is going to say.
‘Your teacher told me…’ she says. I look at the ant. To my surprise, it has pulled the biscuit all the way to the foot of the sofa now. 
‘I didn’t know the answers, ma.’ My tongue is burning. The curry is too spicy.
‘So you should have just left them, na?’
‘I would have failed, ma.’ I cannot tell her that I am unable to study. I don’t want to tell her that it was easier for me to remember everything I studied when daddy was with us. I can’t tell this to mom, she will feel very sad if I do.
‘It is better to fail than to cheat, Vijay’. Mom’s voice is sad. I want to cry again, now. I don’t know how to make her happy. All I want is for her to be happy.
‘Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set beforehand. And each of us will have a different syllabus, a different paper, beta.’ Mom’s tone is gentle. Her eyes are watery; I know that she wants to cry too.
She runs her hand in my hair, as she continues, ‘You can pass your school exam by copying, Vijay. But what will you do in the exam of life? Where will you copy from?’ I don’t know how to answer this. I don’t know the answer. The more I think about this, the more frightened I am.
‘Sorry ma. I won’t copy next time.’ I lie to her. She smiles at me and lays a soft kiss on my forehead. I don’t know why I am still so unhappy, even after this.
I wish I had not got caught by that horrible Shaila ma’am when I was looking at Renu’s answer sheet in the exam last week. Shaila ma’am called mom to school and showed her all my answer sheets. All my answers had the same mistakes as Renu, Shaila ma’am said.
Dad used to teach me Math and help me with project work. Now, my math scores are so low that Shaila ma’am has put me in remedial classes on Saturday mornings. I got C and D grades in all my project work. Mom is so busy and tired after she returns from work. I never ask her to help me with studies. I will manage on my own.
But there is something I want very badly. I know mom won’t answer me. I have asked her many times before with the same result. I don’t know why I still ask her this question again and again. I try to control myself. But I cannot keep my feelings inside me for too long, without telling her what I want.
‘Ma, can we go back to daddy?’
Mom stares at me, but as usual, says nothing. Her face looks even sadder than before. As always, I now wish I had not asked her this. I should have kept my mouth shut…
She picks up the plate and returns to the kitchen. I can hear her mute sobs even though she has turned on the tap at full speed, so that I should not hear her. She does not want me to know how unhappy she is.
Daddy is allowed to meet me only on weekends. But, mommy never lets me to stay with him overnight.
I once told grandma that I miss my room and my bed, in daddy’s apartment. Grandma replied that it is not important to have a big house because it is much more important to have a big heart.
I did not tell anyone that I miss everything else in the apartment complex as well…swimming in the pool, playing in the park and reading comics in the library there. I miss going to school in the school van instead of pillion riding on mom’s scooty and most of all, I miss all my friends there.
I miss the long drives dad used to take us on, during the weekends. He would buy us junk food at a different mall every week. Mom and dad used to laugh so much together then; I used to laugh so much too…
Mom has told me many times that it is not my fault that we cannot live with dad anymore. But I know that she is lying. I heard Dad tell her many times that she used to ignore him more, after I was born. If I had not been born, mom would not have ignored dad. Then dad would not have gone and become friends with all those other aunties.
Mommy and daddy fought so much because of me. Mommy has to live in this small house and go to work all day instead of living with daddy…
I am aware of something heavy in my middle region, it is a horrible feeling.  It is worse than the pain I feel when I hurt myself on my knees or elbows when I fall down while playing.  I don’t mind that pain, but this…weight on my chest is worse. I hate carrying it with me wherever I go, it is hard to ignore it or forget that it is there. I want it to go away, but it won’t. I know that it won’t go away all night and maybe even in the morning when I am in school.
A tear escapes from my right eye. I wipe it quickly, with my knuckle. I don’t want mommy to see me crying, even though she has told me that it is okay for boys to cry like girls too.
I remember most of mommy and daddy’s fights. They used to talk in low voices in the beginning and then, as always, they would forget that I was in the next room or within their hearing range. Then, they would begin to yell at each other. It would terrify me so much. I would cover my ears and shut my eyes tight. But I could still hear their words.
I don’t know how, but I can remember everything that they used to say while they fought, even after so many months. It is strange that I cannot remember my school notes despite studying so hard.
I once heard mom tell dad not to blame her for his…his affairs. I don’t know why she calls them affairs. My friend told me that an affair is a bad thing. He told me that his uncle had an affair with a neighbor aunty and now, no one in their family was talking to him.
But my daddy is not bad; he would not do bad things.
I don’t want to stop talking to daddy. I don’t mind if he talks to a hundred aunties as long as he still loves and wants me. My friend Roma told me that her dad did not even remember her and never called her after he divorced her mother. I was terrified to hear that. What will I do, if dad forgets me completely and never comes to see me after mom divorced him? I am terrified to think about it.
When I had asked him about it, the last time I met him, he had laughed and said ‘Vijay, don’t believe everything your mother tells you’ and then bought me an ice cream. He always buys me nice stuff but never answers my questions properly.
I want to ask him and mom a lot of things. Why can’t mom stay with him anymore? Why is mom so angry when dad talks to other aunties? Why can’t dad stop making friends with other aunties to make mom happy? Why do those aunties talk to dad even when they know that my mom doesn’t like it? Why can’t mommy and daddy just stay in the same house with me? Why can’t we just become like before, we were so happy…my family was a happy family…why can’t I get that back again?
I wish there was some place from where I could read and get answers to all the endless questions. Exams are easy. If I don’t know the answer, I can just copy from my friends’ papers.
But these questions in my mind…where can I copy the answers from?
Mom returns to the sofa where I am sitting quietly. She has finished cleaning the kitchen counter and has put out the milk coupons too.
‘Time for bed!’ she says, cheerfully. Her eyes are still moist but she has a forced smile on her face.
She carries me in her arms to our bed. I know that I am going to feel scared again tomorrow. But for now, I am safe. Because, I know that mom loves me. Because I know that mom will never, ever leave me and go away. Because I love my mommy more than anything in the world and she is with me.
I hear the pitter patter of raindrops beating on the window pane above my head. It is cold. Mommy wraps the blanket tightly around us and hugs me close to her. She places another kiss on my forehead and coos, ‘Sleep, baby. Sleep’.
I see her tired eyes looking at me with that tender look I know so well. I know that I am the only person in the whole world for whom she gives that look. I suddenly realize that the heaviness in my chest is gone. I am not so frightened anymore, even though I still don’t know the answers to all my questions.
Grandma always says that we should count our blessings and be thankful for them. For me, the biggest blessing of my life is the love of my mommy and daddy.
‘Thank you, dear God, for giving me mommy and daddy,’ I smile silently at the calendar of Sai Baba on the wall, before closing my eyes.


Picture : Google Images.

Embrace - A poem.

Past memories of graces 
glow like fresh dew, 
upon nostalgic faces; 

Frosty winter traces 
dissolve & subdue, 
in warm embraces; 

Cocoon of cozy fireplaces, 
silent sighs escape anew 
with harmonious heart races...


Picture : Google Images.

Friday 22 June 2018

Book Review 6: 'Paper Money' by Ken Follett.

A Review.

'A million pounds 
is nothing,
but a rooster 
can save a family 
from starvation.'

Follett’s introduction to his novel informs the reader that Paper money is his second book written in 1976, and is one of his most unsuccessful books.
It showcases the nexus between the world of crime, high finance and journalism. The author draws multiple comparisons between this book and his other works such as The Mogliani scandal and The Eye of the Needle.
Follett opines that the plot in this story is the cleverest he has devised and rues that the small sales of the book, convinced him that clever plots satisfy the authors more than the readers. This, in any crime fiction reader’s opinion, is a pity. One needs to read the plots of the masters to understand the mounting thrill of uncovering each facet of a twisted plot, layer by delicious layer.

The Key Characters:

Felix Laski, the businessman who is unscrupulous enough to snatch the lifetime business, as well as the wife of a hapless banker.

Tony Cox, the ruthless gangster who engineers crucial meetings with important businessmen, with the same aplomb as dangerous raids of guarded money.

Tim Fitzpeterson, the minister who commits adultery for the first time in his life, only to suffer the dire repercussions of the same.

Arthur Cole, the deputy news editor of the Evening Post, who compromises more for work ethics than likes to admit, only to end up in patronizing bitterness.

Kevin Hart, the ambitious journalist who ends up at the right place at the right time and yet discovers that the world of journalism has far more layers of disillusionment in its underbelly, than he realized.

Derek Hamilton, the banker who suffers acute ulcer as a result of sacrificing his health for affluence.

Ellen Hamilton, is Derek’s beautiful wife, who finds solace in an illicit affair to assuage her mid-life crisis.


The Pros:

The neat chronological order of each hour in which the story is presented is agreeable to the reader. A catchy beginning at six a.m. and a crisp ending at four p.m. marks the time-frame, in which the whole sequence of events unfold and culminate.
Although the number of characters is high in the book, they are brought together with skill and finesse towards the climax. These characters are of varied nature, ranging from ruthless crooks to half-witted men, from seasoned hookers to bored housewives, from seasoned politicians to ambitious journalists; the book has it all.
Most of even the minor characters, however nameless, have a meaty role to play to take the story forward. Some characters (Doreen Johnson, young Billy Jones & Evan Johnson) are introduced halfway through the novel, however they have been given just the right amount of space, to let the reader understand where they come from and why their thoughts & actions influence the story.
It is a fast paced thriller, given that the whole book plays out the drama that occurs in a single day, with hourly accounts. The first half is a series of unrelated events occurring around unconnected characters that progress to a culmination of a brilliant conspiracy, with the power to make or break fortunes of the key characters.
The dark underbelly of journalism, the nitty-gritties of day-to-day functional tensions of an evening paper newsroom, and the way it functions with its tentacles reaching out to every section of the populace is brought out with flair. The twist at the end is endearing, especially since it restores our faith in the innate goodness of certain humans, telling us what sacrifices it takes for a newspaper, to balance its responsibility towards the readers, to maintain dignity and quality of the papers it puts out day after day in the fast paced world where Breaking News is hard to come by. Despite the book being more than half a century old, most newspapers of today may benefit from taking a few leaves out of this book, solely for the principles the editor endorses. The twist at the end leaves the reader with a bitter taste in the mouth, and yet the reader realizes that this is the best twist to relish in its realistic portrayal.
And for those who believe in Karma, or the twisted hand of fate, the climax provides the reader with exactly the kind of karmic retribution that befits the characters who believe they can get away with duplicitous and unethical deceit.
One however cannot help but feel sorry for the key characters who face nemesis, despite their deviousness, because their sheer genius and tenacity in handling the setbacks that come their way makes one want to root for them, to get away unscathed.


The Cons:

The lack of one central character takes some time to get used to. Some of the characters, and the minute details pertaining to their lives (like Herbert Chiesman) could have been done away with, as they do not seem to have too much substance to add to the main narrative.  Having said that, character development is seen to be lacking, where the main protagonists are concerned.
Further, excessive characters demand too much memory from the readers, especially today’s readers, who are accustomed to the short-lived memory requirement of instant gratification offered by social media.
The reader cannot help feeling at some point in the story that the villains are just not villainous enough. That perhaps is closer to the truth than most stories (especially movies) we encounter, where the antagonist is irreversibly detestable to the point of generating hatred in the reader.
The main don, Tony Cox is more human, (perhaps more realistic) than his cold-hearted portrayal in the beginning. He surprises the reader with his almost casual,  even humorous reaction to the major, unforgivable goof-ups of his men, that eventually lead to his downfall. In fact, Tony is rather sweet & appreciative, as the boss of the moron who almost ruins the whole operation. And he actually feels for the misfortunes of his men, including their personal lives.
And since when do the kingpins of the underworld admit their gunshot-wounded soldiers at the Government hospital, let alone reveal their own identities to the policemen they encounter?  Sounds surreal?  Yes, to the point of suspending belief. Even for the 1970’s, by which time legends like the Godfather (1969, to be precise) had already made their mark, this idea is a little farfetched.  
While the prose and thought flow of the other character point towards his ‘ruthlessness of punishment’, there is barely any evidence to his supposed ruthlessness. In fact, too many scenes in the story point to the contrary, towards his almost obsessive and endearing love for his mother or his affection towards his brother & his dog.
Laski is too predictable, in his sudden realization of what he wants from his life, love-life to be precise. Been there, read that, one time too many before.
One has to keep reminding oneself that this book was written at the time when desk telephones were the main medium of communication and the concept of social media in interaction was almost nonexistent. Thereby, the reader tends to get frustrated because the characters only get to hear crucial news only through face to face meetings or the telephone.


The conclusion:

A pretty decent read, although Follett’s other works are a few notches better. Readers who dig acquisitions, mergers, takeovers, financial crunches, business deals, share market intricacies etc. are sure to find this an enjoyable read. Added to the recipe are illicit affairs, blackmail, mental instabilty and violence; lies and betrayal, combined with a pulsing media coverage, all of this interwoven into the main plot might make for further incentives to some readers.
Pick up this book if you have ample time to finish it in one go, if possible. If you take a break of a few days and get back to it, you may have to start over because you won’t be able to recall the sheer number of characters & their roles in the story, unless you have a strong memory.
Ken Follet’s fans are sure to get the taste of a different feel, that takes away from his usual style & finesse of storytelling. However, the opportunity to read the celebrated author’s work during his youth makes the book worthwhile.


Excerpts :

He loved her for needing him, no one else needed him.

How naïve he had been to think that a young girl like Dizzie would fall head over heels in love with someone like him. He was a patsy in some elaborate scheme which was much bigger than petty blackmail.

In a civilized society, he thought, when there was no news there would be no newspapers.

All he could do was think about the promise of joy that was false. He did not have the will to wait, perhaps years, for the revenge which would restore his self-respect. But the dead feel no pain.

The trouble was, she liked the taste of freedom.

She smiled as she recalled how thoughtful each had looked after she delivered her veiled ultimatums. She knew her men: each would analyse what she had said, understand after a while, and congratulate himself on his perspicacity. Neither would know he was being threatened.

She had dreaded this ever since the day, fifteen or more years ago, when she had discovered that she had married a villain. But it was never easy to keep secrets in marriage.

The story he had dictated over the phone had been re-wriiten beyond recognition. He felt empty and bitter. This was to have been his moment of glory and some spineless sub-editor had soured it.

The story we put in the paper is what we know and only what we know… But we’re not here to print our suspicions.

People usually thought he was incapable of getting upset because he never shed tears. That was how they found out he was different.

He was running scared and he did not like it. It was his role to dominate situations such as this: he liked to be the only one in the know, the manipulator…Going cap in hand to money lenders was not his style.

It made him laugh to think of it this way: He had made a million pounds in a day, and the only thing he could think of to buy was a three-pound box of chocolates.


Photo : ©ChethanaRamesh