Told in the form of a fantasy, Contamination is a horror book that tells the time-old tale of atrocities committed by the so-called civilized against a group of tribal people, motivated by both greed and racism.
Contamination takes us to the fictional hinterlands of a village of Habishi tribals surrounded by Hori mountains on one side, where traces of gold have been discovered in the soil, and the forbidden Jotsama forest on the other, inhabited by Patala the Witch.
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The Gold Rush
Of course, the discovery of gold initiates a gold rush into the mountains by one Colonel Rosie Madbull of the Baikaal prison, a man “directly animated by malice”. To get to the gold, he not only wishes to displace but altogether eliminate the entire tribe of Habishis, who he considers worse than animals, unworthy of dignity that must be afforded to men. Under, and yet unbeknownst to the state, he creates his own private army, the Redhounds, to carry forward his own economically and racially motivated agenda.
“Because witches are always women.”
On the other end of Contamination is the story of Amba, a Habishi girl who survived her difficult birth defying all odds, and who the village shaman believed to be contaminated by supernatural forces. Everyone whispers “witch” behind her back. She is a part of the Habishi militia formed in response to Colonel Rosie Madbull’s atrocities against her people. Through her, we explore the theme of sexism, of how despite her being capable, the men in the militia do not wish to be led by her. Because a strong woman with a mind of her own must be a witch.
In stark contrast to the macho attributes of Amba is her twin brother Nakul, a sensitive boy who is forced to join the militia even though he hates the life of violence, because of the expectations from men in an environment of toxic masculinity. The sibling relationship is coloured by Nakul’s feelings of envy and second-guessing himself as being not as brave as his sister.
The Hero’s Journey
Contamination quite obviously follows the fantasy narrative template of the monomyth. We are told that there are supernatural spirits (referred to in the narrative as simply: us, reminiscent of the Ogbanje spirits in Akweiki Emezi’s Freshwater) that were trapped inside her body and crossed into the living realm when she was born, these were the so-called voices she heard but suppressed throughout her life, in an attempt to feel normal and to refute the allegations of witchery against her.
However, it is in the war against the Redhounds where, against all odds, Amba survives and is transformed from just a strong girl everyone called a witch into an actual witch powered by the ancient wisdom of the forest and the voices inside her that get unlocked but remain unexplained.
Told, not shown: Why the horror book falls flat
What appears to be a promising concept on paper, fails in its execution because Lakhera chooses to tell, rather than show, every blow, kick, rape, vomit, and dry heave. The writing is visceral and uncomfortable, as is to be expected from a story that deals with the themes of war and exploitation, and yet, one comes off feeling that she tells everything minutely and explicitly when it comes to an individual scene, but when it comes to the big picture, there are so many questions left unexplained, unanswered.
It is difficult to buy into the fantasy with mere glimpses of an origin story, and the world-building suffers for it. If the violence had been left implied while the fantasy world was described more specifically, rather than the other way around, it would have read better. It also did not help that the characters, especially Rosie Madbull and his evil henchmen, ended up seeming like caricatures.
Richa Lakhera’s horror book Contamination is essentially a story of how real human beings are capable of great horrors and evils greater than imagined evil supernatural forces.
Had it been written with more nuanced characters and greater details of the world the story inhabits, it might have made a wonderful addition to horror books in India. As it is now, it seems written solely with a screen adaptation in mind, and might just work in that medium.
War is not an eloquent blow to the neck or a jab to the heart. It is dirty, stinky, shitty, with blasted bodies, rotting parts, splattered brains, missing eyes, blown off limbs, bloated intestines.
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