When it comes to thrillers, India is sorely lacking in the genre. Our writers write a lot of romance and mythology, and some literary fiction. But nary a thriller. In this climate, Raghu Srinivasan’s debut novel The Avatari is like a breath of fresh air.
The Avatari is a thriller that spans several continents over several years. At the heart of the story is Henry Ashton, a retired British Army officer. Ashton receives a mysterious letter from a monk regarding a certain treasure that has been stolen from a Laotian monastery. As Ashton investigates with his Man Friday Duggy, a retired Gurkha Sergeant, the mystery deepens and leads them to the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. With an Oxford mathematician and an American mercenary in tow, Ashton and Duggy journey to find this mythical place in Tibet. But the legend of the land holds that only a chosen one, an Avatari, may have access to the secret of Shambhala (no prizes for guessing who that is).
When you begin reading the book, you notice straightaway how similar it is to Dan Brown’s novels, specifically The Da Vinci Code. The Avatari opens with a murder. The assassin’s identity is unknown but it is implied that he is working for a secret organisation. There is also a character called Teacher in the scene, but he is the victim. As The Da Vinci Code progresses to borrow characters, events and plot points from history and theology, so does The Avatari. When new characters are introduced, they are given elaborate back-stories in a style reminiscent of Sidney Sheldon. An early assessment of the book would dismiss it as derivative, but since the foundations of a mystery and a thriller are laid down by then, you can’t put away the book.
Srinivasan switches back and forth between eras and continents to tell the story. It is apparent that much research has gone into the work, both historical and cultural; if you are a bit of a history junkie, you will savour the chapters that take you back to Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The central premise, however, of retrieving lost treasure, is a cliché. The characters are drawn distinctly, in large part due to their extensive back stories. This works both for and against the plot – in a thriller, sometimes not knowing is part of the thrill. What also does tire is a monologue of historical context that is delivered by characters like scripted and rehearsed lectures. And the page extent itself – at 500 pages, the book is at least 200 pages too long. A thriller, especially the Dan Brown and Sidney Sheldon kind, is quick to approach the climax. The Avatari’s plot catches heat later on, so the thrills you’d expect are belated.
Nevertheless, for a debut novel, The Avatari is commendable. Srinivasan showcases some impressive writing chops in the narrative. We’d like to see what he offers next.
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 399
Page extent: 500