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Review: Grabber by Jehan Zachary and Nirmal Pulickal

ByPercy Bharucha
May 25, 2023 04:57 PM IST

An adventure-horror story set in British India that features monsters, myths and an unlikely friendship

Grabber inhabits a strange little corner in the world of Indian fiction. An adventure-horror story set during the British occupation of India, it reads like a fictional fusion of Kipling and Bram Stoker, both of whom are cited as influences by the authors. The story’s genesis was a school writing assignment set for Jehan Zachary that this father-son duo polished into a chilling tale.

A view of the Taj Mahal in Agra. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times)

Zachary and Pulickal create an unlikely adventure forged upon unexpected heroes. As most horror stories begin, we find our protagonist in a small village adjacent to a dense jungle. When a child is abducted after the appearance of a blood moon, Nuru, the village leader’s plucky son, goes off demon hunting.

208pp, ₹250; Puffin (Penguin)
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He is joined in his quest by “Boomerang” Jack, a disgraced soldier who is a coward and a scoundrel. Together, guided by the ghost of Mumtaz, the unlikely duo must battle monsters born from old, dark magic and find the courage to do what is right. In a rare thing for the time in which the story is set, Nuru and Jack’s friendship is a partnership of equals. Nuru is curious about the British and their invention and the sections where he travels by train and sees the Agra railway station make for wonderful pen portraits of life and travel during the Raj. Drawing from the urban legends of the Black Taj Mahal and Shah Jahan chopping off the hands of the workers who built the Taj, Grabber takes the reader on picturesque romps through the Mughal and colonial periods of Indian history.

The mystery of the Black Taj (Shutterstock)
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Quite unexpectedly, the book’s monsters are one of its high points. While most Indian horror relies on the overused imagery of the tantrik, the chudail, women in white sarees, and rakshasas, Grabber features an original array of fiends including a sorcerer and the Xunxar, forms that are neither human nor animal, neither alive nor dead, but somewhere in-between. The Black Taj itself is built of strange dark magical rocks, otherworldly and with powers of their own. Its builders are a foreign breed of artisans, affected by albinism with eyes of a blackish-red hue. All those that venture near it become ill; for when the black stone calls, all must answer.

At 200 pages Grabber is a breezy read perfect for short train or plane journeys. Zachary and Pulickal maintain a brisk pace with just the right amount of historic detail to make for an enthralling and visually evocative read. Care is put into the descriptions of Mumtaz’s clothing and jewellery. In her first appearance, she wears a jhoomar pendant with a hummingbird and vines made of gold and jewels. Packed with local wisdom and insights into survival skills, the book provides real world knowledge about jungle flora and fauna such as which jamuns are safe to eat, which thorny plants are to be avoided at all costs, how to pick up animal trails, and how to navigate paths to safe watering holes. There’s much about the beauty of the Taj too, which is elaborated upon through its architectural marvels like the latticework, the sepulchral arches and the ornamentation with the pietra dura.

Authors Jehan Zachary and Nirmal Pulickal (Courtesy the subject)

While the story is largely enjoyable, key sections of it are relegated to narration. More dialogue would definitely have enriched the scene where Nuru views Mumtaz in her true form and receives her message regarding what he must do. However, the fight sequences do not disappoint and the final battle between Nuru and the demon sorcerer is exhilarating.

Martin Calderon’s illustrations, that are reminiscent of the animated adaptations of The Jungle Book, add much beauty to the book.

The Grabber is an excellent addition to the genre of Indian horror for older children and young adults. It adds to the canon of Indian monsters and myths and its story of a friendship set in a period otherwise marked by inequality and despair is heartening.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

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