Arsh Verma
Ebury Press
December 22, 2023
Final Verdict

About the Author

Arsh Verma is a 2017-batch Haryana cadre IPS officer. He is an alumnus of St John’s High School, Chandigarh, and Hindu College, University of Delhi. Besides writing, he enjoys drawing comics and playing golf.

Book Review: The Velvet Hotline by Arsh Verma

Sneha Pathak reviews The Velvet Hotline by Arsh Verma (Ebury Press, 2023)

When I picked up Arsh Verma’s The Velvet Hotline, I thought I was going in for a hard-boiled, racy crime thriller. The quote on the cover by Ruskin Bond and the fact that Verma is an IPS officer were perhaps responsible for this. The blurb of the book and the opening lines further strengthened this idea. As the book progressed though, it directed me into a realm that I had never anticipated when starting it.

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The Velvet Hotline is the story of Ayingbi Mayenbam, a kindergarten teacher who wants to do something productive during the school’s summer break and joins a suicide helpline as a volunteer. But the hotline and its people seem strangely apathetic to their callers and Ayingbi, in her zeal to save people, comes across a dead body on her first day at work. She quits the hotline and starts looking for something more mundane to do, but a call from Dr. Rastogi, a man who runs another suicide hotline, brings Ayingbi back to the same field of work.

All seems to be going well with Ayingbi feeling that she is making a difference in the lives of people when strange things start happening inside and outside the office and Ayingbi finds that she, her colleagues at the hotline, and her kindergarten kids are all in danger unless she steps up and faces the malevolent power that wants her to stop saving people.

Trigger Warning: The text may contain potentially disturbing content.

Story and Descriptions

The presence of this malevolent power is what can become a game changer for a reader, as we soon discover that Ayingbi is battling not a natural but a supernatural power that puts her into situations where kill-or-be-killed is the only way out. This supernatural power, for which Ayingbi has no explanation, but about which she suspects Dr. Rastogi knows something and is keeping her in the dark, starts haunting Ayingbi in strange ways, terrorizing her enough that she returns home to Manipur for a few days before the pull of knowing what is going on brings her back to the city.

The book draws to its climax with a showdown between Ayingbi, the malicious power, and the ‘monster’ that it has unleashed where Ayingbi tries to defeat it with the help of a sword, super-hero style. Things at this point depart from the typical superhero film though and become more thoughtful and insightful about the major thread running through the book – suicide and mental health.

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The Writing

The Velvet Hotline never turns preachy despite dealing with a heavy subject. There are times when we see Ayingbi at work when she leaves her phone to actually be with the person who has called and, sometimes, is even successful in saving them. While the book isn’t a work that discusses mental health and suicide in a more nuanced way perhaps can also be seen by some readers as seemingly glossing over the complexities of mental health issues for the sake of moving the plot forward or even using the issue as a plot device, it seems that the heart of the book is in the right place.

Even though it’s more of a supernatural thriller the book manages to capture the issue without trivialising it at any point. There is a sense of black humour that pervades the opening chapters of the book, during the time Ayingbi spends at the first suicide hotline or during the day she spends with a wedding planner.

Arsh Verma

We are never told what place Ayingbi is living in, we only know it as the ‘city’ and perhaps this works well because this anonymity adds another dimension to the supernatural experiences of Ayingbi – they can happen to anyone, anywhere. While I found Verma’s choice of making Ayingbi, a girl from Manipur, the main character refreshing, I couldn’t help but feel that the choice makes no significant difference to the novel, plot-wise.

One of the greatest demands the book makes of its readers is that they suspend disbelief completely and go with the flow of the narrative. As we witness Ayingbi falling into situations that become curiouser and curiouser, there are moments when I wondered whether the novel would not have been more powerful had the bizarre been turned down a notch.

One part in particular, related to cats reaching their gruesome end, might not be for every reader. If you are prepared to trust the writer entirely and go with them wherever they take you, buckle up dear reader, for this is going to be a wild ride.

Favourite quote from The Velvet Hotline by Arsh Verma

“I think this is the whole problem. We keep talking them off the edge. But the circumstances that drove them there remain. Being call-operators truly is lip service after all, even with our little jaunts. It’s the…iceberg of formal conversation…we ever negotiate with – their real, authentic selves are buried far within. The real battles are fought alone.”

From The Velvet Hotline by Arsh Verma

Have you read this charming and amusing debut novel of a simple life in a small hill town? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!

Sneha Pathak

Sneha Pathak

Sneha Pathak loves reading over everything else and has a degree in English Literature. She loves discovering new authors and new books. Her favourite genre is mystery/detective fiction, but she reads all genres with equal gusto and enjoys writing about them. When not reading, she can be found book-browsing.

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