Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Writing with a punch

Did a version of this for The Hindu Sunday Magazine/Literary Review 

In October 1994 the Kerala Police arrested a Maldivian woman, writing the first lines of what was to become the ‘ISRO spy case’. Initially taken into custody for allegedly staying on in India after her visa had expired, the woman, Mariam Rasheeda, was later charged with espionage. Over the following weeks the reach of the ‘spy’ case expanded, bringing into question the loyalties of an assortment of individuals, including two scientists with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Some months later, it became clear that the ‘spy case’ was a fairy tale and in 1998 the Supreme Court confirmed that the case had been fabricated. It is presumably this ‘real-life incident’ that has inspired C.P. Surendran’s novel Hadal.
So there’s Miriam Zacharias, a young-ish aspiring writer from the Maldives, who takes a break from her life back home and heads to Trivandrum to write a book. There, her path crosses that of the intriguingly-named Honey Bhimrao Jaspreet Kumar, a cough syrup-swigging, oversexed police officer from Delhi on a punishment posting as the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Officer in Kerala’s capital. Honey, who’s terrified of falling coconuts, wants to have sex with the luscious Miriam. And when she refuses, he dreams-up up an espionage case against her and her Indian paramour Roy Paul, an ISRO scientist. 
Hadal — derived from the Greek ‘hades’ or ‘underworld’ also refers to the deepest trenches in the sea where pressure is extremely high — is not just the Miriam-Honey-Roy story. It is interspersed with a smorgasbord of tales, some of which seem tangential, at best, to the overall plot. So there’s the story of an Indian couple whose son has been taken into protective care by the authorities in Norway. Then, there’s American academic-activist Haws and the tale of his involvement in an agitation against a nuclear power plant in a village somewhere south of Trivandrum.
That Surendran has a way with words is undeniable. There’s a lushness to the writing that makes Hadal less of a book and more of a film. The words and the images they conjure are powerful, often vivid, and the universe they build is sometimes surreal. Like this line that stayed with me: “Ever since, Roy had been faithful to Old Spice, and had developed a weakness for the lingering fragrance of the truth in small runaway treasons in hotel rooms like this.”
It’s equally undeniable that Surendran’s writing, like his speech, is often self-consciously droll and occasionally smart-alecky, with characters who echo these traits. Like the whistle-blower who says: “I’m a whistle-blower.” Or the cast of interesting characters, occasionally with quirky names, that populate the book — Cardinal Telespore Lobo, the church leader; Thomas Lawrence Pappan, the crafty chief minister; and Aladi Ram Mohan, Honey’s mentor and partner in crime.
Then, there are the pithy one-liners that pepper Hadal. Sample this one from the book’s anti-hero, Honey: “The world was a crowd-sourced construct.” Or the one from Roy: “The substance of the (sic) evil was the heart.” Clever as these meditations on the universe are, they begin to grate just a bit after a while.
What is slightly more disconcerting is the rather abrupt change in pace, with the pleasing languor of the early portions giving way to haste in the final chapters. Things happen in a rush and suddenly it’s all over, with an ending that resembles a “crowd-sourced construct” that doesn’t quite go the distance.
Now the extent to which a work of fiction reflects reality is flexible. Yet, details that match reality add to the power of the narrative. But what nags me about Hadal is the baffling lack of attention to detail right through. For instance, as anyone with some familiarity with the Indian bureaucracy knows, it’s rare to find a very senior bureaucrat who drives himself around or waits at an airport baggage carousel to pick up his bags. Yet, Aladi Ram Mohan does just that. And he’s supposed to be the head of the Intelligence Bureau.
Similarly, at the risk of sounding like I’m nit picking, it is a little strange to read about Kerala’s chief minister Pappan wearing “loose, white linen trousers.” A Kerala minister wearing trousers rather than a mundu or dhoti while in the State is unlikely.
Such distractions apart, Hadal is a work in which the craft, for the most part, sparkles, dispelling some of the gloom of the world it portrays.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Celebrating Concorde

In the picture to the right, is the most famous nose in the world. Well, perhaps I should have added a qualifier like ‘arguably’ or ‘possibly’ or ‘perhaps’ in the previous sentence, but the Pinocchio-ish nose of Concorde is rather distinctive. Of course, Concorde itself is unique for it is one of only two supersonic airliners or supersonic transports (SST) to have flown commercially. 
The rather distinctive nose (and the body behind it too) in the pictures in this post is of the Concorde referred to as ‘Alpha Golf’, with the registration number G-BOAG. Now on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Alpha Golf was the plane that operated the final scheduled Concorde flight on 24 October 2003. 
It was 12 years ago today that Alpha Golf flew from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport to London’s Heathrow airport. Or to put it a little differently, it’s been 12 years since ‘Speedbird Concorde 002’ operated from JFK to LHR, executing a Canarsie climb on take off.  
For 27 years, Concorde operated by British Airways and Air France almost put ‘time in a bottle’ as they flew faster than any airliner before them or since. They could, for instance, fly from London to New York and back in the time it took an ordinary aircraft to fly one way. As the British Airways site says: “Concorde’s fastest transatlantic crossing was on 7 February 1996 when it completed the New York to London flight in 2 hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds.” And the Concorde flew for many more years than its rival, the Russian Tupolev Tu-144. 
I came face-to-face — almost, since it towered over me — with my first Concorde at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia a few years ago. My more meaningful Concorde experience was a recent tour of G-BOAG. Among the most striking aspects of this aircraft that defines the age of glamorous and luxurious air travel is just how cramped its cabin is.   
Besides operating British Airways’ last Concorde schedule, Alpha Golf also has another record under its wings. On its very last flight to The Museum of Flight in Seattle, on 5 November 2003, Alpha Golf set a New York to Seattle speed record of 3 hours, 55 minutes, and 12 seconds. 
There’s some talk of getting Concorde flying again. I’m not too sure if that’s going to pan out.
I know, though, I’ll never fly on Concorde, probably. And yet, I can’t help wishing I had, for there’s something about this aircraft. Even something as ordinary as a recording of the final conversation between Kennedy air traffic control and the pilots of Concorde feels special. That’s the magic of Concorde.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Museums of flight

The 'Great Gallery' of the Museum of Flight Seattle
A short version of this piece is part of my story in the October issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

What’s interesting about Seattle is that it is home to so many aviation-related attractions. Boeing is, of course, the most obvious of these, but there are several others too.
The oldest of these is the Museum of Flight and its aircraft restoration centre. Then, there’s the Flying Heritage Collection established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which focuses mostly on military aircraft from World War II. Finally, there’s the Historic Flight Foundation’s museum and restoration centre for aircraft manufactured between 1927 and 1957. 
Besides Boeing’s Everett factory and the Future of Flight Center, I really wanted to visit all three museums. But with just three-odd days in Seattle and so much to do, I had to choose — and the Museum of Flight it was on this trip. I found it especially attractive, not just for its collection of aircraft and aviation and space-related memorabilia, but also for its airpark that offers visitors an opportunity to tour the interiors of some pretty interesting aircraft.
Among the world’s largest private air and space museums, the Museum of Flight is in the town of Tukwila, just south of Seattle. It’s actually located in the southwest corner of Boeing Field, formally known as King County International Airport.
In fact, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower exhibit — on the museum’s upper floor — is a great place to watch aircraft movements at the airport. And in addition to learning about how air traffic controllers and towers work, the ATC mock-up allows you to listen to real-time conversations between the controllers at Boeing Field and pilots as they land at the airport.
The museum’s 'Great Gallery' is home to a diverse squadron of aircraft, ranging from deadly fighters such as the MiG-21 to unique craft such as the Wright 1903 Flyer Reproduction, a replica of the Flyer in which the Wright brothers made their first flight. It also has an M-21, a variant of the A-12 — the earliest type of Blackbird or SR-71 aircraft — that carried an unpiloted drone. Other attractions within the museum include a 30-minute tour of the Space Shuttle Trainer Crew Compartment.
However, I was more interested in what was outside the museum: in the airpark, where a disappointment awaited me. ‘City of Everett’, the first Boeing 747 or Jumbo Jet to be built, was not open for tours when I visited. I’d obviously goofed-up on my research! But there were several other equally interesting planes to explore.
Conference room on board SAM 970
First up, was a stroll through a gleaming British Airways Concorde. It was an illuminating experience, but more on that soon. 
Next, was a tour of ZA003, the third 787 Dreamliner to be built. While used mostly for flight tests, it was also a demonstration aircraft for Boeing’s ‘Dream Tour’ in 2011. What struck me most about the plane is how spacious it feels, even in coach! 
My final port of call in the airpark was SAM 970, the Boeing 707 that was the first jet to serve as Air Force One. Delivered in 1959, the aircraft was on a number of flights that played a role in shaping the history of the world. VIPs who’ve flown on it include US presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, as well as others such as Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and Henry Kissinger.
It was fascinating to walk through the plane’s plastic-shrouded interiors, taking in the communications room and the conference room, and thinking about the discussions that took place in this ‘oval office in the air’.
Note: It seems the 787 Dreamliner is currently not open for tours as it’s been moved to a new aviation pavilion scheduled to open in summer 2016.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Where Dreamliners are born

From the deck of the Future of Flight Center; Boeing's Everett factory is the structure to the left.

Did a version of this story for the October issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

Spread out far below me is a fascinating and intricate puzzle, one I’m glad I won’t have to solve. For these pieces of metal, rubber and a hundred other things will soon come together to become a brand new Boeing 747-8 passenger jet.
I’m no aviation geek, but I often find that something aviation-related worms its way on to my itinerary whenever I travel. Sometimes, it can even be a little intense — like spending one day of a two-day trip to Washington DC at the SmithsonianNational Air and Space Museum in the city and the Udvar-Hazy Center, its companion facility in Virginia.
So while planning a long weekend in Seattle, I almost found myself saying, “If there’s no Boeing, I’m not going.” For Seattle is Boeing territory. The company, which celebrates its centenary next year, was founded in the city by William E. Boeing. And its factory in Everett, about 40 km north of Seattle, was built in 1967 to produce the iconic 747 or Jumbo Jet, which for almost 40 years was the world’s biggest airliner. Today, the factory hosts the company’s 747, 767, 777 and 787 Dreamliner production lines.
More exciting, particularly for an aviation buff, is that Boeing offers public tours of its Everett factory. The 90-minute, guided tour gives visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how some of the company’s airliners are made. The tour’s hub is the Future of Flight Aviation Center, an aviation museum and education facility located in the neighbouring town of Mukilteo. Theory, process and product in one package: I was sold.
My Boeing experience begins with a bonus. From the Future of Flight Center’s observation deck I spot a Dreamlifter. This converted 747-400, which looks like a lumbering humpback whale, is one of four freighters that ferry chunks of the Dreamliner from factories around the world for final assembly in the US.
I’m tempted to linger, gawking at the Dreamlifter and at the aircraft parked across from the factory, visible in the distance, but it’s almost time for the tour to begin. As the queue for the tour forms, Boeing personnel circulate, reminding us that no personal belongings are allowed — not even a pencil and a notebook.
A Dreamlifter on the tarmac at Paine Field.
The tour begins with 10,071 hours: How Everett Changed the World, a short film about the company and its aircraft. What stays with me is the segment on the 787 Dreamliner and how most of those who will use this plane probably aren’t even born yet.
Film done, we board buses and drive across Paine Field/Snohomish County Airport towards the factory. As we pass scores of parked aircraft awaiting final touches or delivery, Simon, our guide, starts rattling off some overwhelming statistics. At 13.3 million cubic meters or 98.3 acres, Boeing’s Everett factory is the world’s largest building by volume. Translation: Disneyland and 12 acres of parking can fit inside it, with a bit of space to spare. So could 911 basketball courts.
Another Everett story is that when built, the facility was so large that it had its own weather system inside till a ventilation system was installed. “So did it actually rain inside the factory,” someone jokes.
Since it’s a Saturday, there’s a hush, with little activity on the floor except for the occasional worker pedalling by on a tricycle; one of 1,000-plus bicycles and tricycles that employees can use to get around the factory. On weekdays, there can be a bit more visible activity on the floor, Simon says. What’s really noticeable though is that the factory gets very noisy because of all the machines being used, he adds.
We’re not on the factory floor though, but several floors up on balconies that overlook the floor. At each production line, Simon explains how it works — how the various pieces come together to make an entire aircraft. The galleries also have aircraft models, videos, posters and aeroplane parts.
Our first stop is a balcony overlooking the 747 production line where several 747-8s, the latest variant, are in various stages of completion. At one end I spot sections of a wing, while right in front of me are almost complete fuselages and in the distance, several complete aircraft, all covered in a metallic-green temporary protective coating. 
I’ve always known that a 747 is enormous, but I realise just how large it is only when I stand before the cross-section of an early Jumbo, which presides over the balcony. As I run my fingers across its cool, smooth metal — you’re encouraged to touch some of the stuff — I marvel that the outer skin is only about as thick as a five-rupee coin!
A little later, at the 777 line there are a few employees around, working on a green-coated fuselage. More fascinating though is the U-shaped moving production line used to make these planes. Aircraft sections come on to large crawlers at one end and finished planes come off at the other.
In a bit, we move on to the last part of the tour, the 787 Dreamliner line. Unlike Boeing’s other production lines, the Dreamliner’s is more of an assembly line; sections of the aircraft are flown in from suppliers around the world and put together in Everett. 
The Dreamliner is beautiful, with its sweeping, seagull-like wings and clean lines. Meanwhile, Simon talks with visible pride about how the plane is changing air travel. For one, it’s made mostly of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic and other composites, which means it’s lighter than aircraft of a similar size. It’s also been designed to consume less fuel, produce fewer emissions and create less noise.
Inside the Future of Flight Center.
As a traveller, I’m most captivated by the physical changes in the cabin: Wider aisles, higher ceilings and an air circulation system that removes odours, bacteria and viruses, and is supposed to reduce jet lag. Equally fascinating are its large, shutter-less windows that use electrochromism-based smart glass to offer several settings to adjust visibility and lighting. Which means you can dim the windows and still see what’s happening outside. I can’t wait to fly on one.
On the bus back to the Future of Flight Center, I reflect on the tour. It was a great way to dip my toes in the ocean that is Boeing, though it felt a trifle rushed at times.
Back at the Center though, it’s time to explore various aspects of aviation, from aircraft engines and landing gear to simulators, mock-ups and experiments. It’s a bit like entering an aviation-themed candy store — everyone seems to be having a great time.
Wandering through the ‘family zone’, I spot adults and children clustering around activity carts, building aircraft models and designing jets. There are a bunch of experiments on nanotechnology, and I watch a girl build a giant carbon nanotube using blocks. Across from the nanotube, some boys are enjoying themselves at the Bernoulli Table, an interactive game that illustrates the relationship between the velocity of air and the pressure it exerts, thus explaining how aircraft are able to fly.
In the ‘flight systems zone’, I play pilot in the cockpit of a Boeing 727, yanking levers and flipping switches. A few minutes later, I actually try to fly a plane in a simulator; I keep it in the air, but spend most of my time trying to pull out of a dive!
I could easily spend another hour or two exploring the Center, but I head back to the observation deck. As I gaze at the factory in the distance, I’m content. For it’s been an illuminating morning at a company that has transformed transportation and through it changed the world. 
The Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour is in Mukilteo, 40km north of Seattle. Hours: 8:30am-5:30pm daily, with factory tours on the hour 9am-3pm, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Timings could change, so confirm before visiting. Tickets, including factory tour, start at $16 for adults and $9 for 15 and under, but prices vary depending on season and whether the ticket has been reserved ahead. Limited public transportation to the Center is available from Seattle and surrounding communities. I chose a package from Viator that included to-and-fro transportation from my hotel in downtown Seattle. Tour involves some amount of walking and climbing stairs. Children must be at least 122 cm tall to take the tour. Personal items including cameras, cell phones, purses and so on are not allowed on the factory tour and can be stowed in lockers in the Future of Flight Aviation Center, though demand can often exceed supply. Restrooms are not accessible during the tour, so visitors are encouraged to use the facilities in the Center before the tour. There is a café and store with Boeing memorabilia in the Center. For more:

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Kovalam blues

The sky is slate-grey and there’s a thunderstorm brewing in the distant Western Ghats. And I’m thinking of clear blue skies, the aquamarine blue of the sea off Trivandrum and the warmth of the sun. With clear skies in short supply, this clip of the blue Arabian Sea and Kovalam’s Hawah and Lighthouse beaches will have to do. I took it from the deck of the Kovalam/Vizhinjam lighthouse early on a morning in March this year when I was working on this story for National Geographic Traveller India.

Friday, October 9, 2015

dIVERSIONS: Vocabulary of art

I discovered online magazine Antiserious about a year ago, soon after it was launched. 
And since then, I’ve been a regular; drawn by its brand of ‘Laughter in Slow Motion’ — a powerfully eclectic blend of writing and anti-writing!
So when I created dIVERSIONS — an experiment inspired by the vocabulary that shrouds contemporary art — I knew that it would feel at home in Antiserious. And the folks at Antiserious agreed.
dIVERSIONS is about words. About what words are made to do, and not do, especially when they accompany works of art. 
The full piece is here.    

Saturday, July 11, 2015

On a Sunday in Trivandrum

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple
Did a version of this story for the July issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

Rise early on a Sunday and join one of several free walking tours conducted in Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandrum). While Tree Walk explores the city’s tree wealth, Heritage Walk delves into its social, cultural, and architectural history. I’ve found these freewheeling walks to be a great way to discover facets and stories of the city that would otherwise pass right by us. Both tours usually start at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings and, over a couple of hours, cover one of the city’s neighbourhoods. Though both walks typically happen at least once a month, they tend to be more frequent from December to April. (Details on future walks on Facebook pages: Tree Walk; Heritage Walk
No visit to Thiruvananthapuram is complete without admiring the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, possibly the world’s wealthiest religious institution, and exploring the busy Fort neighbourhood around it. (Only Hindus allowed in the temple, which also has a dress code: men go bare chested wearing dhotis while women wear saris or dhotis wrapped over salwars. Dhotis are available on rent; footwear, cameras, mobile phones, bags, etc. not allowed inside the temple;
A few hundred metres from the temple’s main entrance is the Kuthira Malika Palace, also called the Puthen Malika, which houses a museum of artefacts belonging to Travancore’s former royals. (The museum is open 8.30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-5.30 p.m.; closed Mondays; entry Rs 15; foreigners Rs 50; no cameras or footwear allowed inside; exterior pictures/videos Rs 30/Rs 250.)
A Tree Walk at the Model School
For a further dose of history, art, and greenery, head to the tree-filled government museum complex that contains a couple of museums, a zoo, and an art gallery. At the very least, visit the eye-catching Napier Museum with its mélange of architectural styles and collection of archaeological and historical artefacts. (Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursday-Sunday; 1-5 p.m. on Wednesdays; closed Mondays; entry adults Rs 10; children Rs 5; no cameras allowed.)
Next, stop at the nearby Sree Chitra Art Gallery to see paintings by Raja Ravi Varma and Nicholas and Svetoslav Roerich. (Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursday-Sunday; 1-5 p.m. on Wednesdays; closed Mondays; entry adults Rs 20; children Rs 10; no cameras allowed.)
For a booster shot of history, head to the Keralam Museum of History and Heritage located opposite the main museum complex. The museum, which opened a few years ago, traces the region’s history and global connections across the ages. Its collection includes Neolithic stone axes, a jar and bowl used in Iron Age burials, Roman coins, and sculptures of bronze, wood, and stone. (; open 10 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; closed Mondays. and public holidays; entry adults Rs 20; children Rs 10; foreigners Rs 200.)
Round off a heritage-filled day with a mesmerising Kathakali or Koodiyattom performance at Margi, a cultural organisation that promotes Kerala’s classical performing art forms. Margi conducts regular Kathakali and Koodiyattom performances through the year, but when planning a visit, it’s best to give them a call to find out what’s on. (; 0471-2478806/2473349/98470-99941.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kovalam calls

Hawah and Lighthouse beaches from the deck of the lighthouse
Did a version of this story for the June issue of National Geographic Traveller India. 

Some of my earliest memories of family vacations in Thiruvananthapuram involve Kovalam. The seemingly never-ending drive zigzagging along twisty roads, the gradual descent between palm groves, the tanginess in the air and the sudden expanse of the beach, with the sea stretching off into the yonder.  
Back then, Kovalam was little more than a fishing village, with few visitors and fewer buildings on its three main beaches—the Ashok or Grove beach, Hawah or Eve’s beach, and the southernmost Lighthouse beach. Today, it’s a small town, the beaches lined by rows of shops, restaurants, and hotels. 
Kovalam’s beaches and its warm, shallow waters ideal for swimming are its biggest draw, which is why it can get pretty crowded with visitors on weekends and holidays. But there are also other ways to explore this laid-back town. 
Deck with a view  
The best place to get a fix on Kovalam’s topography is the observation deck of the candy-striped lighthouse that commands the southern end of the eponymous Lighthouse beach. It’s an approximately 157-step barefoot climb (footwear is not allowed inside the lighthouse), including a final stretch up an almost vertical metal ladder, to the deck. You’ll probably arrive breathless, but the climb is worth it for the view. And if you go up as soon as the lighthouse opens for the day, there’s a good chance you’ll have the deck to yourself for a few minutes (daily 10 a.m.-12.30 p.m. and 2-5 p.m.; tickets Rs 3 to Rs 25; camera passes Rs 20 and Rs 25). 
Surf for a cause 
Kovalam has a small, but growing surfing scene thanks to the Kovalam Surf Club, which opened here in 2005. The club offers surfing lessons to people with varying levels of expertise. The only requirement is that learners have some basic swimming skills, says Mani Sreekumar, the club’s director. It runs classes through the year, except during the monsoon months from June to August. The club also has a shop that sells and rents out surfing gear. And the club’s profits go to Sebastian Indian Social Projects, a non-profit that supports women’s empowerment and education programmes for school dropouts in the area (; classes Rs 1,000 for 1.5 hours). 
On the water 
For the mildly adventurous, there are snorkelling expeditions on a catamaran and speedboat rides (prices start at Rs 3,000 for 2.5 hours and Rs 300/person respectively). The speedboats usually head a few kilometers out to sea and zip along the coast, giving those on board a view of Kovalam and its adjoining beaches. Kovalam’s best snorkelling spots are off the rocky headlands that separate its main beaches, but the sea can get rough during the monsoon. So the best time to go snorkelling here is from December to March, when the sea is relatively calm. The region’s marine life includes mussels, plants and a dazzling array of fishes including bat fish, parrot fish, angel fish, groupers, moray eels and so on.  And in May 2015, the Kerala Adventure Tourism Promotion Society launched scuba diving in Kovalam (Rs 3,000/person for 30 minutes and Rs 1,500/person for 15 minutes).  
The sessions, which include 30 minutes of familiarisation in a swimming pool, are best booked ahead. (For more call  +471-2320777/+91-94460-74020 or email:
The best way to recover from all this activity is to end the day the Kovalam way — with a sundowner (now mostly non-alcoholic thanks to Kerala’s new liquor laws) and a meal at one of the restaurants that line the Hawah and Lighthouse beaches. 
While the best bet on Hawah beach is the multi-cuisine restaurant at the Sea Face hotel, Lighthouse beach has many options, ranging from Lonely Planet (known for its vegetarian-only menu) to Beatles and Malabar Café. My personal favourite, though, is the German Bakery on Lighthouse beach with its terrace with a view, relaxed ambience and eclectic menu. 
Kovalam also offers upper-end beachside dining options at the Vivanta by Taj-Kovalam and The Leela Kovalam. Dinner at either hotel comes with distinctive views of Thiruvananthapuram’s coastline and fishing vessels twinkling like a thousand fireflies on the sea.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

All is not revealed

Did a version of this for the May issue of The Hindu Literary Review

A few pages into Ajaz Ashraf’s The Hour Before Dawn I started feeling mildly panicky. Rasheed Halim, a New Delhi-based journalist and the book’s principal protagonist, had just stumbled across the possibility that the cancer he’d fought and seemingly defeated could return. And his rising panic at this discovery was infectious.
Rasheed’s struggle to deal with the trauma of a possible relapse is one of the stories at the core of this rather hefty book. Another major narrative is the mysterious appearance every morning of ‘Secret History’ — a series of posters on the walls of residential colonies in New Delhi — across November 1992. This ‘Secret History’, which portrays Muslims as invaders intent on plundering the country and wiping out all traces of Hinduism, claims it presents the ‘real’ history of India. ‘Secret History’ addresses Hindus, who it declares are “the only true people of this holy land” and exhorts them to rise and destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992.
Several other narrative threads run through The Hour Before Dawn. These include Rasheed’s blossoming relationship with Uma, who helps run a helpline for people with psychological ailments; efforts by Rasheed and a bunch of others to unmask and stop ‘Secret History’s’ anonymous author; and the story of Wasim Khan, who is Rasheed’s neighbour, a devout Muslim with a catholic worldview and an Islamic scholar on a quest for “the nectar of the Invisible.”
Weaving all these strands into an engaging tale is a challenge that Ashraf tackles with limited success, as the narrative plods on to an ending where not all is revealed.
Some sections are extremely evocative, especially the bits that deal with Rasheed grappling with the idea of a relapse and all that it means, including the possibility of imminent death. Rasheed withdraws into a little bubble of dread and doom. And Ashraf captures this sense of darkness so well that it almost becomes a living being, one that sucks out every shred of positivity from the world around. Sample this passage that captures the pain, fear and confusion that envelop Rasheed: “Like drops of water falling from a leaking faucet, the thought of dying dripped into his consciousness. His was the pain of a man overwhelmed by the cruel certainty of his fate.”
I was also struck by how well Ashraf has crafted the various episodes of ‘Secret History’, with their catchy, over-the-top portrayal of events from India’s past. Of course, you soon realise they are exaggerated and fictionalised accounts; something Ashraf confirms in the afterword. Yet, there’s something beguiling about them, a bit like those e-mail forwards you get and promptly forward to people you’re not too fond of!
At the same time, the writing is often uneven and stilted, with convoluted sentences like this one: “They felt the emptiness similar to what is experienced on missing out on reading the newspaper in the morning, a regimen adhered to for years.”
The book is also afflicted by a jarring ‘article-itis' and ‘preposition-itis’ epidemic; with articles and prepositions being used in the wrong places and missing from where they’re needed.
I also found some of the sub-plots and details that crowd the book tangential, at best, to the overall narrative and quite exhausting. They add bulk to the book, but little heft to the plot. 
Which left me feeling that some incisive editing, which cut away the flab that weighs down this book and shaped a tauter tale, could have saved The Hour Before Dawn. That it didn’t happen is a pity. For the book presents a slice of recent Indian social history, the effects of which are still being felt. Equally important, it is a work of fiction, a historical thriller that also throws culture, religion and medicine into the mix. At another level though, it nudges us to reflect on what terms such as ‘history’, ‘trust’, ‘friendship’, ‘religion’, ‘liberal’, ‘fear’, ‘love’ and ‘life’ itself really mean.