Take an engineering student, put him in a parallel plot with freedom fighters and a secret society and, voila, we’ve a plot so thoroughly borrowed that it may just begin to appear original. Of course, the heady mix will be incomplete without the female character accessory. So we have the beautiful history professor, Sheila Guha.
To be honest, none of this helped Benaami’s cause when I first picked it up. For the first 50 pages, I had memory reincarnations of my own — flashbacks from the Rang De Basanti days seemed to have mated unceremoniously with memories of Five Point Someone. Arguably, not a good mix. But somewhere along the lines, it begins to surprise you by turning into a pacey thriller set in two radically different eras that manage to coalesce remarkably well to create a sense of adventure that keeps you hooked to the book.
Benaami is the story of a present-day engineer Arjun Chatterjee who’s a victim of recurring dreams about a mid-19th century secret society called Benaami. Now secret societies have always held a certain fascination for writers and readers of the genre — Freemasons, The Templars, Ghadar, to name just a few. But Sarkar adds a fascinating — if only slightly far-fetched — premise to the parallel plot. Benaami, the secret society, operates out of Delhi and Kolkata and is the driving force behind India’s first war of Independence, the 1857 revolt.
It is scenes from this time and space that haunt Chaterjee’s dreams in the book and pose for an intriguing past life. The dreams bring us to Guha, who is conducting an independent research on the Benaami and helps Arjun decode his reincarnation memory. Add to all this drama an evil megalomaniac millionaire Ratikant Gupta who wants to suppress the two and their attempts at reviving ghosts of the past. Gupta’s other activities have him mired in a vicious circle of crime and power.
All in all, a fascinating read, and a surprising attempt in this genre by an Indian author in English. Though, to me, it reads more like a rough draft of a movie script, which needs heavy doses of editing.
Nine unknown men: Emperor Asoka entrusted nine men with the task of guarding nine books of secret knowledge. A fictional account by Talbot Mundy.