Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Honest Season: Kota Neelima: book review

The Honest Season: Kota Neelima
Review by Divya Dubey

[Published by Hindustan Times: May 21, 2016: ]

This is the third book by the author and journalist, Kota Neelima, who has covered politics in Delhi for over two decades. The earlier novels include Shoes of the Dead and Death of a Moneylender. In The Honest Season too she draws a realistic political set-up with its soft underbelly. She creates a strong woman protagonist, Mira Mouli, also a journalist, but with a special super-power: to intuitively ‘know’ the future, besides people’s thoughts and motivations, so that as a ‘know-journalist’ she becomes indispensable to Bidur Munshi’s newspaper that has been struggling to survive for a while. And yet, behind the facade she is a grown-up orphan carrying a heavy baggage from her past.

Mira’s life is suddenly thrown out of gear one day when a tape arrives from Sikander Bansi at the newspaper office, addressed to her. Although he is the son of Mahesh Bansi, the president of the People’s Party and one of the most powerful men in the country, Sikander has always been known to flout his father’s wishes, rules and traditions. He is an MP himself, but ‘He never made political statements, demands or suggestions in the press, and was only rarely ever photographed.’ And now he has chosen to do a disappearing act, which is unsettling for his father, especially since Sikander has decided to make a game out of it. Every week he sends a controversial tape secretly recorded by him within the premises of the parliament, to Munshi’s newspaper. The tapes reveal underhand dealings of several well-known political figures and offer incriminating evidence against them. At the end of every recording there is a clue for Mira Mouli. Sikander believes that she is the ideal person to figure them out and manage to reach his hideout, since both of them have much in common – their brains work alike. Until she does, he will keep sending such tapes and the newspaper must publish them.

As Mira struggles with the clues, she is helped by Salat Vasudev, another ‘know journalist’ at her office, whose appointment she partly resents. At the same time Nalan Malik, the Party’s general secretary, keeps making intermittent and unexpected appearances, ostensibly, to ensure her safety since, as more and more politicians are exposed, the number of enemies baying for her blood keeps burgeoning every week.

Kota Neelima
An engrossing political thriller, this novel moves at a good pace, entertaining and challenging the reader at the same time. It has its twists and turns, some predictable, some not, and it follows the standard pattern of a breezy thriller. Regrettably, most such mystery novels do sound alike. One rarely comes across a narrative voice that sounds distinct or different. This book too falls in the same category. At times the similarities between Sikander and Mira, the instinctive bonding, the yearning and the pain seem a little contrived.

The good part is that the author has succeeded in creating a realistic, likeable, strong protagonist that the reader cares about. However, the downside is that precisely because she is strong and likeable, the reader is left feeling dissatisfied and angry towards the end.

This is precisely the kind of novel that, despite being a prototype commercial thriller, begs literary critique. And it is not quite possible to do that without giving away many of the novel’s secrets. Yet, it is important to comment on the book’s ending. Even though the author has left it open ended (there could be several alternatives), every alternative comes across as equally defeatist.  Perhaps it would have done much better without the Epilogue, which overturns the entire impact. One wonders why Mira is offered the choice she is offered at the end and whether it is a choice at all. What is the author trying to say? Is it really that no matter how strong or gifted a woman may be (or even a superwoman for that matter), eventually she must fall in line and resign herself to her fate because it’s a man’s world? Or is it that strong women must fall victim to their death wish because that is the only option available to them?

Because, eventually, that is the message the reader receives. And the reader would have respected the protagonist much better had she been able to break out of this stereotyping of women. At least in 2016 women journalists have come so far that they can – and do – hold their own even in the toughest situations. Sans the Epilogue, the novel would have been far more appealing.

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