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TOP SPEED THRILLER

Bunker 13, By Aniruddha Bahal, Faber, £4.99

Uncork the bubbly: the Indian thriller has come of age. Aniruddha Bahalís Bunker 13 does for Indian English literature what the red-hot chilli does for Indian cuisine. This book will keep you hanging on the edge of your seat without even raising a sweat. Bahalís command of the language is impressive, his tone hardly ever slips up, and he is solidly believable in doing what he does best: recording the fast and furious give-and-take of action. The narrative is utterly hardboiled and will transfix you with its exuberance from page one. The profanity is prodigious and colloquial, the head to head macho conflicts reek of battle hormones. The book also pulls off the difficult feat of being entirely in the second person present tense, a la American gumshoe fiction. The sex scenes sizzle, although the spatial geometry is sometimes a little too complicated. In the somewhat prissy world of Indian English writers, Bahal boldly goes where no maiden aunt has gone before, ripping the cover, in true Tehelka style, off crooked arms deals, drug running and corruption in high places.

Having said that, it must also be recorded that the novelís virtues are also its weaknesses. The relentless ďyou do this, you do thatĒ style immerses the story in an affectless soup of now, a style that fits the drug-induced spaciness of the main character, but also prevents the story from getting real down and dirty with its subject. This is especially evident in reverie and flashback, where the convention threatens to come apart at the seams. The novel holds together best in free fall, rushing headlong towards its terminal-velocity climax. It only surfs the human evil it portrays, and as a result fails to be really thrilling. The shock feature works fine, but the awe component is on the weak side.

The novel has a necessary sting in the tail, but the promise doesnít quite pan out. When the secret identity of the main character is revealed, the reader expects it to unlock a new level in his character, to take the tale under his skin and into his guts. This does not happen; instead the same old technicolour mayhem continues until the story gives up, tiredly and predictably. The kind of climax Bahal was aiming for needs a more meticulous building of reality to work convincingly. In the end, the reader is left with the feeling that it doesnít really matter who MM is; he goes on fighting the same people for reasons that remain uncharted and unexplored. In the process a great opportunity to pack some psychological punch is lost.

But this fault is excusable in a first timer, and the book doesnít renege on its promise of a high-octane roller coaster ride. With his plot fundamentals sorted out and some below-the-surface thinking under his belt, Bahal has what it takes to go places. Journalism has taught him how to rivet the reader to his chair, but the dynamics of a longer work require some long-distance skills as well, and thatís where heís weakest. He also doesnít yet appreciate the need to vary the pace in a long book: top speed throughout can prove tedious reading. Bahal will have to decide whether he wants to churn out a line of superficial but money-spinning potboilers, or to write tightly crafted high-end psycho-thrillers: this book is somewhere in between. This reviewer would like to see him go the craft way, simply because a good thriller is hard to find in any part of the globe, whereas bad ones are a dime a dozen everywhere.

Nevertheless, donít miss this book. It may not be the first-ever Indian thriller, since the genre has long been established in the regional languages, but it wonít disappoint. Be prepared for some seriously adult entertainment, though I should mention that no artillery in the book is as heavy as the acknowledgements, which will carpet-bomb you with megaton namedropping.

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