I picked up “Benaami”, a debut novel by Anish Sarkar, despite having read a brutal review by Rrishi Raote in Business Standard because the author happens to be a friend of a good friend. There are many positive reviews of the book for sure (e.g. this one), but I'm afraid I'll have to side with Rrishi on this one.
The plot revolves around Arjun Chatterjee, who has recurring flashes from his previous birth about 150 years ago when he was Kartik, the founder of a secret society named Benaami (“nameless” in Hindi) that set out to drive the East India Company out of India with the revolt of 1857. He takes the help of Sheila Guha, a professor of history, to get more details of this society and of his own past life. A crazy billionaire named Ratikant Gupta wants to eliminate them and use the brahmastra (“ultimate weapon”) of the secret society for his own nefarious purpose of overthrowing the government.
There are two threads of narration in the book - one following Arjun in modern times and the other following Kartik in the mid-nineteenth century, the latter appearing in italics just in case the inattentive reader gets confused. These narratives almost always appear in different chapters to make it even simpler. The chapters themselves are very short and are further divided into little sections, perhaps to cater to easily-distracted readers. Some times the chapters end abruptly, only for the narrative to pick up from where it left off in the very next chapter.
The narrative itself is in third person and a little too direct and simple. This made reading the book feel a little awkward for me and I just couldn't shake off the nagging thought that the writing could have been a whole lot better. As someone once put it, it is the difference between writing “She left the room in anger” and “She slammed the door shut behind her” - both convey the same meaning, but the latter engages the imagination of the reader just a little bit more to make it more interesting to read.
There are also some bizarre details thrown in (as in novels by Dan Brown) that do not, as far as I can tell, add in any way to the story. For example, how is it relevant that Arjun worked on an IBM ThinkPad (not a Sony Vaio) or drives a Honda City (not a Hyundai Accent) or was being chased in a Tata Sumo (not a Mahindra Scorpio)? Are these awkward attempts at product-placements? Then there is the whole thing about Arjun being an IIT graduate and a software engineer that sheds absolutely no light on his character for the purpose of the story. (Incidentally the blurb on the cover of the book mentions that the author is an IIT-IIM graduate working in Capgemini - why is this relevant to his credentials as an author and why do the publishers think this would make someone want to read this book?)
This is supposed to be a thriller, but the suspense is mostly imagined - the plot plays out in a highly-predictable manner and there are times when you want to hit the characters with a giant clue-bat for being so slow. It feels more like watching a bad film than reading a good book.
On the other hand, this book is just one of the many “easy-reads” being published these days in India, where literary merit gives way to a more marketable formula based on tried and tested plot-lines. So it might well succeed for the publisher and the author despite all these shortcomings.