At a party a month ago, I was faced with a strange proposition. A friend, half-inebriated, was holding forth on the long-lost glorious Indian civilization: Mahabharata's nuclear weapons, Ramayana's supersonic jets, ancient India's spaceships and the works. Forever the sickular, I dismissed him as an advanced case of Modi-itis.
The Emperor's Riddles, Satyarth Nayak's debut novel, straddles the same territory, living in the present but breathing in the past. A new addition to the fast-filling stable of Indian historical fiction, the story takes off from the murder of a renowned historian on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. But the bizarre murder scene, which has alphabets curved on the dead man's face that has an eyeball missing, leaves more questions than answers.
Enter the strapping author-cum-adventurer, a mysterious filmmaker, and the scientist-daughter of the deceased and the author takes us on a 400-page journey that traverses the country in the quest for an enigma so powerful "that even the gods would kill for it". Fittingly, the ambitious trio is trailed by a deranged shadowy murderer and a police officer hot on his trial.
Nayak manages to weave a gripping tale of intrigue and treasure-hunt and the plot, though non-linear, moves swiftly. The trio has to solve nine separate puzzles in a journey that takes them from Chidambaram to Hardwar to my personal favourite Kolkata, where the ancient riddle directs them to my alma mater, Bose Institute, my original motivation behind reviewing the book.
It is, however, when the author attempts to narrate a parallel tale spanning several millennia that the plot begins to flag. A perfectly-gripping murder drama is interrupted time and again by snippets from the age of Buddha, Chandragupta, Ashoka.
For the non-believer, the multiple interjections--some historical, some philosophical--not only takes away from the basic plot, but becomes difficult to follow. Unsure of the royal bloodline in question, I veered off to the Internet on more than one occasion, with the last detour ending in some Varun-Dhawan worship and a satisfying nap.
When I returned to the read, what held my attention was Nayak's sound research that made even anecdotal descriptions of Indian dynasties fascinating, even if a little jarring to the flow of the original mystery. And though some of the characters seemed vacuous, the overarching character in the book remains the millennia-old enigma that the protagonists are chasing and the author never lets go of this central thread.
This is, of course, to not say, that the book is shorn of complaints. The constant invocation of the number nine--its numerological importance notwithstanding --in everything ranging from phone numbers to the year 2007, seem a little forced and wholly irrelevant to the plot. The constant digression to disjoint facts, like how the Indus civilization was wiped out by a nuclear holocaust or that the Indo-China border is a UFO hotspot, is a little hard to digest, especially for the uninitiated.
The same overkill is evident in other characters, be it the police officer, who can't forget the horrors of a night many years ago or the protagonist, who wonders if his parents loved him. A lot of melodrama
However, these are minor irritants and don't take much away from an otherwise pacy thriller. I suspect The Emperor's Riddles would have received a far more warm welcome from an enthusiast of the genre. In the hands of a cynic, though, Nayak's taut narration and an interesting climax save the book. Though the sickular is not quite convinced of India's glorious past, Nayak makes a convincingly good-reading case.
The Emperor's Riddles
Rs. 299 by Flipkart