Book: 'Thunder Demons'; Author: Dipika Mukherjee: Publisher: Gyaana Books; Price: Rs.280; Pages: 272
The allure of the Truly Asia slogan that draws tourist hordes to the cultural melting pot that is Malaysia has lost its lustre somewhere down the road. The country where Malays, Indians and Chinese live in supposed harmony has been suffering for long at the hands of the marauding demons of racism, religious intolerance and divisive ethnicity that have become a scourge of many modern nations. While the silence of moderate Malaysian voices has allowed religious militancy to strike roots, the concept of bumiputra or 'son of the soil' has fuelled tensions and suspicion - bringing Malaysia ever so close to ethnic strife. Dipika Mukherjee's novel casts thoughtful light on these tense undercurrents that threaten the peace and unity of this multicultural nation.
Thunder Demons, published by Gyaana Books, has quite a large cast of characters at the centre of which is the young Agni who is unsure about her past and hasn't fully worked out her relation with the country she calls home. Abhik, her lover, is working hard to defend the secular nature of the Malaysian constitution and as a lawyer representing Hindsight 2020 leaders - a Hindu group (modelled closely on the Hindraf) campaigning for equal rights of all Malaysian races by 2020. The other pivotal character is the scientist Jay Ghosh - an expert on biodegradable stents - who has suddenly arrived in Malaysia, summoned by the ruthless and sinister Col S. Just outside this core group of people are the equally important Shanti, Agni's mother whose death is still a mystery, the charismatic Zainal, a friend of Col S, who has vanished for reasons known to a few, and Agni's grandmother Shapna, whose soliloquies slowly reveal the darkest secrets of two families at the centre of this story.
The fractious socio-political landscape of Malaysia is reflected in the lives of the characters of this novel and much of its tension flows from the edginess with which cultures engage with cultures. In one of the memorable passages, replete with symbolism, Agni prods Jay to get to the bottom of her mother Shanti's death and discover the real identity of her Malay father, Zainal:
Agni's voice broke the silence. 'And then? What about Zainal and my mother? They wanted to marry each other, right? Tarpor?'
This was the time to tell her the truth. Agni's voice brought Jay back to the open-air hawker stalls that functioned as a huge food court under balmy skies, fragrant with mingling cuisines. He again heard the shouts of clients with the languages all mixed up; names of foods learnt from the languages of the hawkers, never translated, and even he had once known how to order exactly what he wanted in Cantonese, Hokkien, or Hakka. The words hadn't fazed him at all, all these cultures co-mingling in a history that was older than anyone alive. He looked at Agni and thought, 'Not just yet'.
The build-up to the plot of Thunder Demons almost has a hardboiled flavour where, in the opening scene, a Tibetan model is murdered with explosives strapped to her body under the watchful eyes of Col S and two ministers. This propels us headlong into the story where the arrival of Jay Ghosh - the colonel's protege - on a secretive assignment promises more drama and intrigue ahead.
The book however takes the delectable route of literary fiction, where characterisation and unhurried storytelling is given priority over a high-voltage plot. The author's powers are clearly in her deft portrayal of character and in the smart brushstrokes with which she fills in their pasts and poises them for the slowly unfolding conflicts of the novel. This is not to ignore the courage she demonstrates while engaging with contentious issues of race, identity and religion.
The strength of Mukherjee's novel lies in how it draws us into the story, busies us with its concerns and finally makes us care for its characters. Reader empathy though attempted by many is achieved by a few and for this accomplishment alone Thunder Demons should be counted a fine work of fiction.
(Rajat Chaudhuri is a fiction writer and book critic based in India. He can be contacted through his website: www.rajatchaudhuri.net)