Book Review: Harappa (Curse of the Blood River) by Vineet Bajpai

Posted on 06 Sep 2017 under Essays

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That India and its ancient heritage can provide a wondrous background for a mythological tale should not be in doubt. Veritably, so many others have tried to do just that – Amish and Ashwin Sanghi come to mind immediately. So, in the sea of books based on ancient India, is Vineet Bajpai’s Harappa: Curse of the Blood River India’s answer to The Da Vinci Code?

Uh … no. No, it’s not. But not for a lack of trying.

Bajpai must be commended for writing a tale that keeps you hooked from page one. The plot is interesting, the pace is satisfactorily quick, and the novel is short enough to keep you from getting bored before it ends. There are two (actually, three, but we’ll come to that in a bit) parallel storylines, one set in 1700 BC, the other in modern times, both of which echo each other.

A significant portion of the plot is exposed in the blurb on the back cover and in the summary on Amazon, which is a bit of a pity, because the book ends on an unfortunate cliffhanger that doesn’t answer the question that the prologue asks, i.e. how did Vivaswan Pujari alter the course of the bloody mighty river. In order to know the answer, you’ll have to wait for the sequel. Other than that, though, the plot is fairly straight-forward. The ancient storyline follows the fall of the Harappan demi-god, while the modern one charts the rise of the modern one. For some reason, there is a third plotline set in Goa in the 16th century, but it lasts exactly one chapter, and has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever (maybe in the sequel?). A good editor should have culled this out. Plot twists are fairly predictable, and consequently the book feels more like it exists only to serve as exposition for the sequels.

However, there’s still plenty of action to prevent it from being boring. Vineet Bajpai is a good story-teller, and that’s evident from this book and the way its structured, though some events seemed to make little sense. There is a betrayal towards the end of the book, but it makes me wonder why the Judas of Harappa didn’t act sooner when better opportunities were undoubtedly available? There’s a vague answer that alludes to something that’s once again left to be discovered in the sequel.

The setting is a winner, particularly Harappa, which is described, quite successfully, as paradise city, where the society is civil, architecture is aeons ahead of its time, and the people are the model mankind should aspire to, both spiritually and physically. There are attempts at incorporating the most famous artefacts uncovered in excavations of the real-life Indus Valley Civilization (such as the statue of the girl, or the stamp) into the culture of ancient Harappa in Mr Bajpai’s universe. It doesn’t quite come of as convincingly as the conspirary-theory inspiring Da Vinci Code, but it’s a respectable attempt. Descriptions of modern-day Benaras are deferential and portray the town as the foremost shrine of spirituality and cosmic power of the world. On a few occasions, it almost feels like Bajpai is trying to appeal to the mass Hindu population base of modern India, but maybe that’s just the religious cynic in me.

The major letdown, however, arrives in the technical aspects of the writing. The characters seem a little unrealistic and over the top, particularly in the way they react. Vidyut (lead protagonist #1) can perhaps be forgiven for the way he’s described (the same can be said for Vivaswan Pujari, lead protagonist #2), because he is, after all, a demi-god in disguise. Yet, what annoyed me more is the common folks’. reaction to being around him. All the other characters seem to fit into stereotypes and tropes (for example, Balwanta, the warrior, apparently “didn’t know what a laugh was”). I cringe!

There is also a distinct lack of imagination as far as adjectives are concerned. “Lovingly” is used to describe everything, from the way the Harappans feel about the river Saraswati, to the way Indians call the river Ganga instead of Ganges. It grates a bit.

And finally, my third major gripe is that Mr Bajpai falls afoul of the golden rule of writing, i.e. “show, don’t tell”. This is manifested in a lot of narration and in unnatural dialogue. The latter is particularly conspicuous to a seasoned reader, because the dialogues have so many adjectives. Or maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s just being a nitpicky arse.

My last two reviews of Indian-authored books have decried the lack of attention to detail in editing, with various grammatical and spelling errors annoying me immensely. Thankfully, I’m glad to report that Bajpai and his editors have done a much better job. At the base of it, the literature holds up to scrutiny, although I will confess to not being an expert, but will also say that I did notice a couple of instances where the writing felt wrong.

In a nutshell, would I recommend this book? The answer is an unconvincing yes. I’d recommend it to those who can ignore the writing if the story is remotely interesting, and I’d recommend it because I like supporting Indian authors. It’s not a particularly lengthy book, so you can potentially buy it at the airport before your flight, and give it away to someone when you land.

On a scale of 1-5, I rate it 3/5.

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