Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory; removed as they are from our mundane lives. They are our cheap thrills and guilty pleasures. Prisoner of Yakutsk by Shreyas Bhave is another such book that belongs to the genre of thriller/conspiracy theory texts. The subtitle of the book, “The Subhash Chandra Bose Mystery: Final Chapter” tells us exactly what we should expect.
Bhave has tried to solve one of the greatest mysteries of India – that of the death/disappearance of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, whose mysterious disappearance has baffled generations and no satisfactory answers have emerged, at least not officially.
In the Author’s Note, Bhave speaks directly to the reader about his fascination with this mystery and gives them a much-needed background into all the official investigations and their findings so far. Describing his book as “fiction presented as fact”, he gives the reader an idea not just of the background to the story that unravels but also to the great extent of research that the author has done to bring the characters to life and link the various, seemingly random, incidents together to form a gripping and fast paced narrative.
The novel opens in media res, with the characters in the middle of the climax; even though we have no idea who the characters are and how have they landed up in their present predicaments. It is an action-heavy chapter, and very cinematic in its treatment, a great hook for the readers.
The rest of the novel moves between the past and the present, with chapters alternating between the two timelines.
In the present we are introduced to Jay Rasbihari, who has come to Hong Kong in search of his long-lost mother. Here he meets Tanya, an international hacker who joins forces with him after hearing his story. Jay is no ordinary man, he is a young entrepreneur and the owner of one of the biggest emerging software companies in India, but he has sold his shares to take a break and look for his mum. And it is this search which takes him towards a greater search – that of Netaji.
The parallel storyline that runs consists of several veterans of the INA and some of their associates that have been chosen by none other than Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel to look for Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Interestingly, we learn about the past through official and confidential files that consist of the details of every movement of the veterans. As the novel moves forward, the paths of the present and the past converge to a point in Yakutsk where both the searches end.
The novel takes us to Japan, Hong Kong, London, India and Russia before coming to a close. Disclosing any more here will be a great disservice to the complex plot as it needs to be read to find out any more about how the book progresses. I can say one thing though; even though the story travels through these locales, you will only meet the hotels, casinos and other such buildings. The cities are not described enough to add to the plot, besides serving as the setting.
There is no doubt that the book is thrilling and the plot is complicated, as it will be expected of a novel moving between the past and the present. What makes it more interesting is the presence of real life characters like Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel and even Julian Assange (who doesn’t have anything to do with the story directly). The narration is taut and the pace is fast. The narrative is also very much action driven and reading the book often feels akin to watching a fast paced thriller, as the style becomes almost screenplay-like at times.
It is these same things which contribute to the weak points of the novel. Since it draws heavily on action, there is little scope for character development. Also, the characters come out as being cliched and stereotypical, especially the protagonists of the text. Jay is rich and intelligent and dedicated to a cause while Tanya, whose character presented the greatest problems for me, is a typical femme-fatale. Oozing sexuality and devilishly clever in both hacking and in bed, she was a disappointment. Her characterization is one big problem with the novel. She is presented from a typical “male gaze”, which is deeply discomfitting. When Tanya is introduced for the first time in the text, the writer focuses so much on her physical attributes whereas nowhere are we given such physical descriptions of Jay. When we, along with Jay, see her for the first time, this is how she is described:
“She was wearing a low-cut blue sweater that revealed enough, yet left the rest to the imagination. Her jeans were tight enough to suggest her curves yet plain enough to pass off as businesslike.”
A few lines later we see her sipping coffee and “Her lips were white with frothy foam. She licked them luxuriously.”
Another problem was with the character of Jay. For a man who has been called the future Bill Gates of India by his professors; who is so bright that he has opened his own successful company despite dropping out from IIT Mumbai and who began his career with hacking, he didn’t seem very well informed about the computing activities that took place. Had the writer addressed the issue with his characters, the novel would have felt even more engaging and interesting.
All in all, the novel is interesting while you read it, but the writing is not memorable and the entire onus of creating interest is on the plot. It’s a light read that you can gladly pick up on a fine day when you want a palate cleanser and delve into the mystery of Bose and his disappearance. Read it for the thrill, for the action-driven plot and for the real life characters which appear in the novel.
Final Rating: 3.5/5 – While the book could have been better, its merits as a thriller are wholly justified.
You can buy the book here.