I’ve written earlier about the spate of mass-market novels authored by young students/graduates and published by low-investment houses like Srishti** – mostly simplistic stories about youngsters who learn hard truths about life through friendships and romance, and eventually grow up (or, in some cases, achieve the all-consuming goal of losing their virginity while remaining just as mentally stunted as before). The majority of these novels move at a brisk rate, with lots of conversation but very little description. Rarely if ever are the protagonists genuine introverts or loners, though in some cases they think of themselves as such.
This is no surprise: many of these writers pride themselves on not being avid readers themselves (see this old post); what matters is that they think they have a story to tell and that they’ve mugged up thesauruses so they can (mis)use “big” words while expressing simple-minded ideas.
On the surface, Aditya Sudarshan’s Show Me a Hero might seem like the standard-issue youth novel, what with its dramatic subtitle “Lights, Camera, Cricket...and Murder” and its mass market-friendly plot about a group of young people trying to make a film about a controversial batsman who once played for India. And sure enough, this book is quite a page-turner in its way – especially the second half, which centres on a mysterious death and an investigation, with a few red herrings strewn about. However, Sudarshan is a wise reader himself (he’s done some fine literary criticism for the Hindu and other publications) and this makes itself felt in the book’s central voice. The narrator Vaibhav, a thoughtful young man with a mature head on his shoulders, spends a lot of time observing the people around him, trying to make sense of the world and his place in it, analysing (sometimes overanalysing) his own reactions to situations.
Vaibhav comes from a well-to-do family and has had a sheltered childhood, but as the story begins he is living in a rented room in a Patpatganj apartment while half-heartedly holding a low-paying job with a wildlife organisation. A hint of excitement enters his life when he reencounters an ex-classmate named Prashant, a mercurial young man on a mission. Prashant turns out to be obsessed with the former cricketer Ali Khan, who had stirred hackles during his playing days because he didn’t conform to the expectations we tend to have of our public figures (wear your patriotism on your sleeve, say all the politically correct things, respect the tradition you were born into). As Prashant, Vaibhav and a small circle of friends begin the shooting of a film about Khan, their paths cross with goons who want the project scrapped, and tragedy soon follows.
Show Me a Hero isn’t a completely satisfying novel, but (and this might sound strange) I don’t really mean that as a criticism. The thing is, it’s dressed up as a work of genre fiction - and marketed to seem like more of a cricket novel than it is, presumably to cash in on the World Cup - but it doesn’t provide the reader with the comforts, the cosy tying up of loose ends, that genre works are expected to provide. Sudarshan has a real feel for the uncertainties of sensitive youngsters trying to deal with a complicated world (and with the hegemony of older people), and his writing doesn’t involve neat resolutions. He has the courage to reach for a downbeat ending, whether it involves a man who might not have been the proud, individualistic hero everyone thought he was, or the likeable girl who gently turns down a likeable boy just when it seems they are “destined” for the perfect romance.
There are some good character sketches here too: an intrusive landlady, a typically belligerent Delhi driver who is ready to “kill” someone because they dented his beloved car but who turns into a fawner when he meets a former celebrity, a grief-stricken mother who wants to believe the best about her abrasive boy. At times I felt a minor conflict between the self-conscious solemnity of Vaibhav’s narration and the demands of a fast-paced story, but on the whole Show Me a Hero does a fine job of ignoring the hazy line between “literary” and “genre” fiction. It’s good to come across a youth novel that has some interiority.
** For more on such writing, see the last two paragraphs of this post