A cold-hearted conglomerate spawns serial killers and identity crises across two countries.
Partho Sen is an extremely talented engineer who is unhappy with corporate life and dreams of becoming a writer. His best friend, Varun Belgathanthy, another gifted engineer, suffers from an identity crisis as a village-bred Indian in the United States. Both work for an Indian software company called CIKS, and are part of an important project for their U.S.-based client, Mayflower Mercantile.
With the events occurring over 24 hours, the story revolves around a serial killer who targets immigrants in the middle of a snowstorm and an important project with a looming deadline. It moves at a brisk pace and successfully alternates between Milwaukee, Bangalore, and the serial killer’s point of view. The city of Milwaukee plays an important part in setting the bleak tone and evoking a feeling of claustrophobia.
While the plot keeps the reader hooked, the author goes into too many details.
Characters like Rashmi Jain, Partho’s girlfriend and constant companion; Laks Deshpande, the ruthless and secretly insecure boss; Kamaal Ur Rehman, a troubled Muslim engineer who lives in constant fear due to his religion; and Deepak Bugtana or “Bugs,” a maverick pothead engineer working out of Bangalore, add an extra dimension to the narrative.
In contrast to these, the American characters — the detectives looking for the serial killer, a small-time reporter looking for the scoop of a lifetime, the senior bosses at Mayflower Mercantile, among others — seem to be caricatures from a Hollywood potboiler.
The book explores various themes — loneliness, racism, Indian regionalism, and even love. But the underlying theme is that of identity. Partho is caught between his dual personalities while Varun struggles to find a foothold in a foreign land. Even the relationship between Partho and Rashmi is based on the fact that neither understands who he/she really is.
Moreover, the writer, an ex-techie himself, certainly has a bone to pick with the IT industry. The cold heart of Milwaukee is shown to reside inside the Mayflower Mercantile complex, where deadlines are literally more important than the lives of employees, who are treated as easily replaceable objects. A blurb about the ‘benevolent founder’ and his PR manager is also clearly a slap in the face of industry leaders, whom we tend to treat as demigods. The serial killer too is a creation of the IT industry. The title itself is a sly taunt at the entire enterprise. While the book succeeds as a taut, intelligent thriller, it fails to be the piece of social commentary that the writer hoped it would be.
Despite its flaws, Behind The Silicon Mask is a good read. Had it been tighter, it would have been great.
Behind the Silicon Mask; Eshwar Sundaresan, Westland, Rs.250.