December Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 5 years ago

Imagine stopping to help a feeble old man into your cab, only to find out that he is actually a deadly and very dreaded don of the Mumbai underworld. And worse, the old boy gets gunned down by a rival gang, in your car, on your seat, while you wait patiently at a traffic signal. How’s that for all in a day’s work?

That’s the kind of ride you are in for with Neeraj Pandey’s debut novel, Ghalib Danger. It’s a story full of twists and turns, edge-of-the-seat suspense, thrilling car chases, heart-breaking betrayals and a rancourous romance, all rolled into one. Sounds familiar? Well, that’s because Pandey may be new to novel writing but he has successfully scripted and directed two action-packed Bollywood thrillers, Wednesday and the box office hit, Special 26.

The master moviemaker that he is, Pandey skilfully transfers his talent for Bollywood bonanzas onto the page. In other words, the novel he has penned is no less spicy than a masala film of its kind. And once you start reading this book, you won’t want to pause. It’s fun, it’s pacy, it’s engaging. However, if you try to find any logic in it (just because it’s on the page instead of a show reel), that would be a waste of time.

Pandey’s fast-paced novel centres around the infamous Mumbai underworld and is told from the point of view of good boy gone bad, Kamran Khan. Like most stories of this genre, small town boy comes to the big bad city with stars in his eyes, only to find all his dreams crushed, one by one. Like others before him, Khan has a very good reason for becoming a bad guy, or the anti-hero as they call it these days. While working as an honest taxi driver, on his way to propose to the girl he loves, he reluctantly offers a ride to an elderly man, an act of empathy he later regrets. His life changes drastically when the man is attacked in the back seat. Instinctively Kamran rushes him to the hospital and the timely intervention saves his life. But the man is no ordinary passenger. It turns out that Kamran has saved the life and therefore earned the gratitude of the most powerful don of the Mumbai underworld, Mirza.

But as the sole witness of the attack, Kamran is pursued by the killers and, thus, dragged into their world unknowingly.

After a few thrilling fights and a few tragic deaths, things go from bad to worse for our guy. Fortunately, the Don survives and not only takes care of the bad guys out to kill Kamran but also takes him under his wing as an extortion apprentice. Amidst all this badmashi, one good thing the Don introduces Kamran to is Ghalib’s poetry. This is where the book really takes off.

Well-known couplets are sprinkled here and there in the novel, adding an interesting quirk to Kamran’s personality. As Kamran’s influence increases in the underworld, he takes on the title of ‘Ghalib Danger.’ No guesses why!

It’s after Kamran spreads his wings that the journey becomes interesting. Having lost what means the most to him (he doesn’t get the girl), he has no fear of death and takes on all of Mirza’s enemies one by one. The fun begins. The protagonist is completely unpredictable and the reader is constantly surprised. There are some memorable characters: Yaqub Mental and Sonia the vamp, for instance, who, despite bordering on the caricature, are hugely entertaining.

In keeping with the current trend, the writing is simple and the dialogues crisp. The plot is fairly predictable and the characters stereotypical. But then, Pandey never did set out to write a classic. The narrative is evenly paced and each chapter keeps up with the last. Like the story of Special 26, as each twist unfolds, the reader is left with badly chewed up fingernails. But what really sets the novel apart is the poetry. A ruthless killer who swoons over shairy; a touch of genius!

If you love your Hindi fillums (and possibly Ghalib), you should read this. Ghalib Danger, at its best, is a good-time, fun read, and at its worst a formulaic, masala-infested Bollywood script. If you’re looking for an action-packed page-turner, an easy read that requires you to switch off your brain and enjoy, this is the one. On the other hand if you like ‘meaningful’ reads, avoid this one at all costs.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue under the headline “Bollywood Joyride”

The writer is a writer. Her first novel “Nobody killed her” published in 2015. She tweets @sabynjaveri