Gaurav Parab’s debut novel is a thriller centered on Rustom Iraqiwalla, a rich Parsi businessman fallen on bad times. While the novel relies on predictable characters and imagery common to this genre—a gang of goons, a beautiful yet unbearable wife, a jilted husband, the elite and their pastimes—the presence of a chillum-smoking baba, whose ability to belt out stories in bouts of epiphany brought about by mouth-frothing moments of prophetic bliss, saves it from becoming run-of-the-mill.
In the first part of the novel, we are introduced to Rustom who has been handed down a relic from the family heirloom: a gun, along with a quixotic will written by Fali, his grandfather, in which he ordains that the family wealth be divided among three sets of people—one part “to any Parsi couple who ended up with the maximum number of babies ten years after his own death”, a second “to the Parsi with the most sad and cheerless eyes” at his funeral procession, and a third part to the family of an Iraqiwalla who commits suicide. Rustom who is broke and hounded by bloodthirsty loan sharks, whose money he has blown up on horses and women, resolves to kill himself to receive a part of the wealth and restore to his wife and child what is owed to them. This leads him to plot a runaway, culminating in an attempt to commit suicide at his best friend Mani’s wedding.
Things take a different turn here. Not only does Rustom develop cold feet, he is brainwashed by Mani into embarking on a trip to the Himalayas to meet the man who can “change people’s lives” through stories—the last storyteller of Almora. In the second part of the novel, we are introduced obliquely (and rather strangely) to this man—Baba, through the story of his son Ravi’s eccentricities and his eventual suicide.
The third and substantive part is where the story begins to take shape. High up in the mountains of Uttarakhand, as Rustom, alias Dev, begins to settle down in Baba’s ashram, the Baba himself begins to start zeroing-in on Rustom for his private storytelling sessions. In due course, Baba delivers three varied stories yet interconnected in their specificities to Rustom. How Rustom interprets these stories to work out a strategy that eventually could save his life keeps the reader fairly engrossed, even while the plot deviates into mundane non-sequiturs, sometimes poorly imagined yet entertaining.
While the figure of the pot-smoking nonchalant Baba in the mountains of Uttarakhand with a big fan following is all too familiar, Parab displays fine skills in crafting Baba’s three stories, which are intelligently constructed and succinctly delivered. Unfortunately, such finery is in short supply with only a few bright spots outside these stories. For instance, the scene prior to Baba’s first story, in which after an intense conversation to initiate Rustom into the story listening process, Baba pops open a can of beer with such casualness that it seemed to have magically “appeared in his hand”.
The novel could have done with a better organization of the plot and refrained from overloading the text with too much detail. It could certainly also be more creative with the names of its chapters, relying mostly on uninspiring phrases such as ‘Man and Nature’. Parab could also have described some of his female characters more realistically, instead of characterizing them primarily as objects of desire motivated by Rustom’s wealth or his good looks.
With all its faults, the novel does hold one’s attention, both through the main plot as well as the numerous observations Parab makes of common people such as chaiwallahs and taxi drivers, which help to develop a sense of place. One hopes Parab’s visceral sense of the world and what seems like a good ear for dialogue encourages him to keep writing and grow into a mature storyteller.