Random House India Rs 199 pp 285
Is the Indian condition so hopeless that superheroes don’t have a chance even in our fiction? Are our bad guys and institutional misery so invincible that we dare not try alleviate reality even through fictional men of steel, laser and justice?
The closest we get to the superhero genre is perhaps in our films. While our filmmakers think nothing of a hero jumping over a train on a motorcycle, or pulling a handpump out of the ground — much harder than train-leaping — they seem equally loathe to give the hero (or heroine) a cape, a pair of undies over pants or even some monogrammed sweatshirts.
This is a pity. Personally, I would pay good money to see or read about an original Indian hero with a secret lair under Connaught Place, whose super vehicle is a fully armoured Royal Enfield. In the daytime our hero works in a call centre or maybe in Infosys. But because he spikes his hair only when he in his alter ego mode no one recognises him.
But enough about my super hero. Instead, let’s investigate Mainak Dhar’s Guardian Angel, a geeky, socially challenged librarian by day, and a reluctant super hero by night.
Dhar is a graduate of contemporary India’s best known school of fiction and literature, the Indian Institute of Management. (In particular, he graduated from the one in Ahmedabad.) Herogiri is his seventh book and this proficiency is somewhat evident in the quality of his prose. It’s written in breezy, direct language. That, coupled with a cast of characters and a straightforward linear plot, means that Herogiri is simple two-afternoon or one weekend affair.
But is it an affair that is worthwhile?
Dhar has designed his protagonist, Arnab Banerjee, in such a way that there is striking contrast between Banerjee’s two avatars. His librarian avatar is meant to be timid, risk-averse, while the Guardian Angel is a human battering ram. His superpowers are straightforward: great speed, great strength and a heightened awareness that makes the movements of assailants appear as if in slow motion.
What is not-so-straight-forward is how Banerjee develops these powers. It involves an incident in a bank with a copy of Tolstoy and some bank robbers. But the real reason for this transition is never clear. Which is an opportunity gone waste for Dhar. From spider bites to cosmic rays to exploding particle accelerators, the genesis of a superhero, and the fake science that goes with it, is a large part of the superhero’s mystique.
The plot, thereafter, is engaging, and wholesome Bollywood film material. Banerjee’s moral and ethical vacillations in the second half do get tiresome, and both his love interest and his conscience-keeper — Khan Chacha the ex-army man — add no new layers to the story. What is particularly off-putting, however, is the book’s tendency to use tired character cliches. This is a security guard at the bank: “When Arnab reached he expected to see Pandey, the security guard, sitting outside, chewing paan and scratching his ample belly as always...” Twenty-six pages later: “Soon, Arnab found himself sitting before a fat, paan-chewing inspector, whose badge read ‘Samit Mendiratta’.”
Herogiri ends on a high note, the action sequence in the stadium is confusing but exciting. And Dhar wraps up the book with no hanging threads. But in the end what you have is more a mid-budget movie script than a satisfying book.
Sidin Vadukut is the author of Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin ‘Einstein’ Varghese
Mosquito and other stories: Premendra Mitra’s hero Ghanashyam Das a.k.a. Ghanada tells the tallest tales. But he comes up trumps. Always.