Warning: Mild spoilers ahead
Chetan Bhagat's success has spawned a spate of Indian “mass-market” novels written in English. You know the kind of novels I am referring to — simple, easy to read stories with a non-taxing, barebones plot and narrative. The focus is more on sustaining the pace of the story rather than building atmosphere or exploring the motivations and interiority of characters. Conversation abounds in these books and is the primary means of keeping the story moving. More often than not they have a stock protagonist (usually also the narrator), one-two sidekick friends and a mandatory typical demure and beautiful “love-interest.” Most of these books, at least the ones I've read, are usually about young people "coming of age" and as such find a ready and available market in people and youngsters who would think it is “cool” to be seen with a book.
At first appearances, Aditya Sudarshan's Show Me a Hero seems to belong firmly in the mass-market category and it starts-off and proceeds like any “standard” novel from the genre. The first few pages of the book seem to build on the book's cover (with a batsman on a pedestal in silhouette against a red Cricket ball with a couple of youngsters — one with a movie camera — looking up to him) and the subtitle “Lights, Camera, Cricket. . .and Murder.” We start-off with a clutch of youngsters and a narrator who is struggling to be independent and make a mark in life while building an identity for himself off the beaten path. Soon we come to what we think would be the crux of the story — the youngsters come together to make a film about a controversial batsman, Ali Khan, who once played for India. Presently the narrator meets an “interesting” girl right at the time he is wondering where his current long-distance relationship is headed to and we seem to have all the set tropes of a mass-market book.
But as you plunge deeper into Show Me a Hero, you realize there's more to this book and that it doesn't quite well slot itself into the mass-market pigeonhole where we (and the marketing of the book) think it belongs. For starters, the characters are not glib, smart-alecks. Vaibhav, the narrator, is trying to do something different with his life and is thus working, in spite of many misgivings, in a wildlife organization which doesn't pay him much. He is also, uncharacteristically for a protagonist of a mass-market book, quite mature and a thoughtful person given more to observation and analysis of people and situations rather than being the one in the action. More often than not, he prefers taking the safe and prudent way and in times of threats and crisis is not averse to losing himself in the background rather than drawing attention. Animesh, his room-mate, is content to do nothing (he is trying to be an essayist in the traditional sense of the word) and use his knack of understanding other men to bring people together so that they can work with each other. Once he has put the people in a mix, he steps back and observes them getting along with each other and doing things. He is seemingly even more incapable of action than Vaibhav and appears largely to do nothing “worthwhile.” Animesh re-introduces Vaibhav to the mercurial Prashant — they both have been classmates. Prashant is egoistic, opinionated, has a tendency to publicize his intentions, hot-tempered, often brash and capable of rubbing people the wrong way by his inability to see how his words or actions impact others. However, compared to Vaibhav and Animesh, he is the one who provides the story its impetus when he decides to shoot a movie about a former cricketer Ali Khan — somebody who in his playing days never conformed to received notions of his religion and tradition, of patriotism or even of playing. Ali Khan's attitude created numerous controversies and raised hackles in his playing days. He has been accused of taking calls from match-fixing bookies, of drinking when his religion forbade it. With the last batting pair on the pitch and five runs to win, Ali Khan had “walked” in a world-cup semi-final when it appeared that the umpire would rule him not-out. Ali Khan though lauded for his honesty never played for his country again. We soon find that none of these characters are “heroes” or easily categorized into the nice people and the villains. Rather they are generally nice people with their share of flaws and some redeeming traits. The girls in the book are however of a single tone.
Prashant ropes in Vaibhav and a small circle of friends, as well as Ali Khan, to shoot the film. Prashant intends the movie to tell the whole truth about Khan — including the match fixing controversy and the semi-final “walking” incident. As the shooting proceeds, some politically-motivated goons intervene, as does a Muslim lawyer, to get the movie project scrapped. Despite Vaibhav's misgivings, Prashant proceeds with the shooting and as expected, soon the circle of friends confronts a murder.
Like the characters in the book, the novel itself is also difficult to slot. When it starts-off with Vaibhav pondering over his job, his identity, his long-distance relationship, it seems that the novel is going to be a mass-market standard “coming of age” tale. Then the Cricket bit comes in and we wonder for a little time if the shooting of the film about a cricketer is to be a pretext of exploring the sport and the theme of heroes and hero-worship. For a brief time, the novel threatens to develop into yet another love story. But then tragedy strikes, a character is found dead, the explanations for the death are not satisfying and the novel finally settles (though uncomfortably) into a murder-mystery.
It is in these transitions that Show Me a Hero reveals its flaws and its strengths. Perhaps “flaws” is too harsh a word to use and what I am trying to convey is a sense of dissatisfaction that Show Me a Hero leaves you with. Vaibhav, the narrator-protagonist, is too passive, self-conscious, and obsessed with his own thoughts and problems to provide a murder mystery the kind of fast-pace the genre conventionally demands. At times, when the novel finally in the second-half of the story settles into the murder-mystery groove, Vaibhav's narrative voice tends to frustrate. Show Me a Hero largely vacillates between being a coming of age tale and a murder mystery. Finally what emerges is a sort of a hybrid where I feel the trope of coming of age is the overarching theme within which a tragedy and a murder mystery insinuate itself. Vaibhav, the narrator-protagonist, is more appropriate for the coming of age strand of the story but ends up slowing down the murder-mystery part of the story. Having said that, it should be noted that it is the murder mystery that provides the novel with its rising action, conflict, and climax. Without the murder, the novel would have floundered with the story going nowhere. It would be simplistic to say that it would have been preferable if Sudarshan had stuck to one of the two strands completely. To me it felt that Sudarshan as a story-teller was more sure of himself and his craft when the murder-mystery kicked in but I also felt that his characters with all their flaws and their interiority and self conscious analysis of life and themselves were more apt in a coming of age tale.
It is this hybridity or a refusal to easily slot the book and its characters that is also the novel's strength and redeeming feature. Aditya Sudarshan refuses to have simplistic characters or a simple plot for the novel. In fact, he goes further and refuses to provide the reader with all the convenient and easy tying up of all loose-ends that one would expect in the mass-market genre. Sudarshan actually opts for an unconventional end in which the narrator-protagonist decides to give-up on doing something different and try out his luck in a “conventional” life. Sudarshan also has the courage to show his “perfect couple” not coming together when it appears that they are destined for each other. In delineating this Sudarshan nudges Show Me a Hero out of the mass-market genre and blurs the line, albeit only slightly, between a mass-market work and literary fiction. It however dissatisfies by never completing crossing over (in many ways I felt that book and its story and characters were apt for each other — neither dismay you completely nor leave you with a feeling of completely satisfaction).
I wonder how this uneasy space that to me Show Me a Hero appears to occupy will affect the “success” of the book. Readers looking for a quick and simple read will be frustrated by its slow-pace and its characters who would rather ponder over life than get on with life and make a film or solve a murder mystery. Readers looking for something more “literary” will find the book to be incomplete with characters that aren't sufficiently complex and a plot that can't make up its mind between being a coming of age tale or a murder mystery and never becomes a wonderful and innovative amalgam of both. Show Me a Hero does enough to show that its author would not like his work to be classified with the simplistic fare of the mass-market category but to me it also reveals a writer who is still honing his craft to attempt something more complex and satisfying.
Update (March 16, 2011) :
Aditya Sudarshan was nice enough to respond to the review. I don't think he will mind me quoting and reproducing from his e-mail. It helps us readers understand how an author approaches and views his creation:
[. . .] I think you're quite right about it occupying an uneasy space, as far as categorization (and I guess commercial success) goes. But for me, the problem is that we think too much in terms of categories and not enough about the substance of our books. In our literary circles we often ignore that the only real test of any story's worth is- what is it saying and how well. Questions of 'complexity' of language and characterization, of 'literary-ness' and of style in general, cannot be dealt with in the abstract, as though they're an end in themselves. Instead, I think they have to be assessed in relation to the truth/falsehood of the story- i.e., the substance of what is being said. [. . .]And my response to his e-mail:
[. . .] I agree with you that categories are never an end in themselves -- nevertheless they offer a convenient perspective by which one can approach a book. Ultimately, what matters is whether a story works or it doesn't.
I guess my piece in writing used the categorization peg because it was so readily available to approach and analyse the novel. When I am talking about the uneasy space occupied by the novel I am also trying to point out that the story or the telling of the story too reflects this uneasiness. I felt there was some amount of disjoint between the kind of characters you have and the kind of story that eventually got told and that impacted the substance of it. And I felt that pointing out this uneasiness (I think I have also called it a general lack of satisfaction) through a debate between the genre of the novel and the space it occupies in the market would convey this neatly. I now see that this hasn't come out that clearly. [. . .]