Khalid Bashir Gura reviews Mystery of the Urban Monks, the debut novel by banker-writer from Jammu, Vikram Singh. Published by Story Mirror, the novel was widely appreciated for its storyline
The story starts with a final hooter of a train and ends with the words of wisdom of a mystic Yogi. John, a writer meets a Yogi on a journey to Varanasi. After ice-breaking with the fellow traveller and overcoming initial inhibitions with a stranger, the conversation surprisingly becomes freewheeling to story sharing. As Yogi narrates an engaging and life-changing story about three friends: Krish, an IITian pursuing his entrepreneur dream; Tony, a vodka craze-high school-dropout; and Asif, a music-loving carpet-seller, a writer in John is joyful as he gets a story. But as Yogi predicts, John will walk out of the story with a different understanding about life. The novel is about that understanding.
The pace at which the conversation and rapport is built is surprisingly too quick perhaps scripted to accommodate future happenings.
The story shuttles to and fro between the narrator and characters, from different places to a moving train. And as life takes three friends journeying into an eventful trip to Goa, eventually, a prediction by a tarot reader in a plane and plane hijack makes it more thrilling only to be disappointed and spoiled by the author’s rush to get his point across.
Later after a life-changing trip to Goa, there is a surprising change in characters. The characters go through a spiritual change that makes them question life, instils purpose and makes them conventional ‘good boys’.
According to one of the characters of the book, the trip to one of the materialistic places in the world had turned into a spiritual experience for them. The laws of attraction work a lot in the book and soon they go on a search for a monk in Tibet. Their journey continues seeking nirvana on the Ghats of Varanasi and tribulations in love with a tribal girl in Afghanistan and Tibet.
The journey to Tibet and Tony’s quest to learn about Buddhism and find his monk friend Dorjee starts with a little description of the place, people and soon settles into the love story with a Tibetan girl; a love story which surprisingly settles soon into utopian marriage. The characters seem to lack life and depth. The utopian happenings in a love story and the dystopian end of an otherwise blissful marriage leave the reader shocking and less heartbroken because of its brazen fictionalization.
The revelations about the Tibetan girl, Tashi, and what exactly she turns out to appal anyone as her purpose is beyond love. Tony’s love becomes the victim of patriotism and nation’s intelligence service, perhaps because of him being moonstruck or the shrewdness of Tashi.
But the writer’s storytelling skill keeps readers hooked can be gauged by the fact that every scene ends with a surprise for readers. Every end is a new beginning.
Meanwhile, as three friends are drifted apart, overtaken by the commitments and mundane pursuits of life especially Krish (the married among two), some of the major and life-changing events in each other’s life happen during that time. One wonder’s how in such an interconnected world of today’s where strangers from different continents are abreast of each-others activities, the three friends lose contact? Krish who meets a foreigner turned Swami, ironically, makes him realize the greatness, richness of his country and its culture. It is there he finds himself questioning the shallowness of western education and capitalist views that Krish espoused. But then again, the author seemed to convey the happenings and changes in the character’s life as answers to questions in an exam.
Eventually, when Krish is back to his work after his vacations, he remembers his friends and their whereabouts. And soon suspense and surprises start to descend. Soon the Krish comes to know about the real Tashi through Tony and both the friends start searching for their third friend, Asif who until now was missing in the story and has disappeared for a very long in a real life.
In the end, one is left appalled beyond imagination when a Mumbai boy, Asif, who is a music lover, changed for good by a Goa trip, shoulders family responsibilities, offers prayers is suddenly found in Afghanistan fighting a war!
Besides war, there is love and ensuing thrillers. Asif also falls in love with an Afghani girl, Henna, who readily and quickly acknowledges his feelings. Asif (a person with a mission to fight the war against NATO forces is wedged between two forces: his love for a girl and his so-called holy mission which he also loves.)
Even though the author has constructed the picture of the futility of wars, and the other side as pacifists imagine, it appears that the author has entered a territory mired in geo-political complexities with a Bollywood style solution and imagination.
The book is a perfect recipe for Bollywood where stereotypes about specific minority communities are reinforced and reshaped, it has love stories, thrill, suspense, surprises and a moral message.
The love story in Afghanistan ends up on an unexpected note as both the love-struck elopers are caught in between NATO forces and insurgents. A reader wonders where did Asif spend the rest of the life because of his choices? And what happened to Tony? And did Krish become a billionaire?
Eventually, where exactly did life take them? What is Yogi’s connection to them? Is he one of them? What were the life lessons for John? What did he promise Yogi at the end of their journey? The story does and does not answer all these questions and mystic Yogi as promised leaves John enlightened with his wisdom.
The message that the author delivers through Yogi is the core theme of the book. The story touches many themes like love, war, friendship, materialism, spiritualism, urge to seek the truth, and love for our beliefs, to choices we make in our life to destiny determined by them. But a book with page-turning capability will not cease to surprise the reader till the end and keep you hooked, with its self-haste characteristics. The book has all the ingredients you’d expect from a commercial fiction story that sells in the present pulp fiction world— the kind you read from cover to cover in one sitting, all the while on the edge of your seat. The characters rather than having a life of their own seem to exist only as the author’s vehicles to drive his message across.
The novel’s characters are as shallow as Bollywood stars as the author fails to offer anything in terms of insight and only manages to touch the surface of the problems they encounter.
But if we are to turn to fiction it offers us a chance to immerse ourselves in a world remarkably different from our own, helping us improve our understanding of something we thought we already knew everything about. The book, in many ways, fails and turns up another factory product churned out as a piece of literature. The book tells its readers how but it fails to, for the most part, show us the deep and inner life of its characters which it seeks to make us understand. The book lacks imagination and understanding of what it seeks to represent. It is designed to make advices, which the author wanted to. A tangential touches on profound themes!