An interesting story comes undone in the way it’s told.
Shatrujeet Nath tells what appears to be a very simple story. Irshad Dilawar, a Mumbai underworld don, is hiding in Pakistan and backing the country’s war of terror on India. Elements in India’s intelligence establishment launch Project Abhimanyu, an operation to ‘take out’ Dilawar. Three men from Unit Kilo, a covert black ops division within the Indian army, are to slip into Karachi and kill Dilawar while he’s in the city.
However, in the shadowy world of espionage things are not always what they appear to be. And so it is in The Karachi Deception, Nath’s debut novel. When they rendezvous in Karachi, the Unit Kilo commandos find their plan unravelling. For one, they stumble on a parallel attempt to kill Dilawar. The more immediate threat, though, is that Project Abhimanyu has been exposed to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, which triggers a hunt for the Indian commandos.
In the second half of the book, we travel with the commandos as they evade capture and try to salvage Project Abhimanyu. Things come to a head in the arid suburbs of Gwadar in Balochistan when the commandos learn of Project Abhimanyu’s real objective. Nath skilfully crafts a plot with tremendous potential. His narrative takes some very deft, unexpected and totally plausible turns. Especially neat is the very intriguing twist in the book’s last two pages.
Promising as the book’s plot is, its craft doesn’t quite work. The consistent lack of attention to detail, accompanied by a parade of typos, issues with syntax and straightforward errors makes The Karachi Deception a very uneven read.
There’s too much clutter; many unnecessary details that add nothing to the narrative except to slow it down. So the description of a street in Gwadar flits over a clutch of businesses before decelerating for a leisurely inspection of a restaurant’s signboard: “The sign outside, which also bore the hand-painted logo of Pepsi, proudly proclaimed: ‘Nagina Restaurant, Since 1991’.”
Yet, there are other places where there’s a dearth of detail. I often wondered how Unit Kilo got its name, but could find no explanation.
Equally frustrating is the tendency to slip into generalisations and stereotypes. So there’s the “formidable Punjabi matron who kept salesmen and other unwanted visitors out” of an Intelligence Bureau office in New Delhi. And then there’s T.P. Doraiswamy, an Indian intelligence operative in Oman, who speaks “in a pronounced South Indian accent.” Reading this bit, I wondered what a ‘South Indian accent’ is.
Also baffling is a certain lack of attention to detail about security and intelligence processes. This is a pity since authenticity adds heft to a thriller and authenticity typically comes from getting the little bits right. So there are conversations on apparently unsecured telephones about Project Abhimanyu; conversations that reveal much about the mission and the team working on it. It’s very tempting to think here that Nath is taking a sly dig at the Indian security/intelligence establishment’s lack of security consciousness, but I don’t think that’s quite the case.
A book generally works when it has a good story that’s told well. Clearly, Nath has an interesting story; it’s in the telling-well bit that things come undone courtesy some careless writing topped by very weak editing. A good editor — one who can see the woods while also keeping an eye on a specific tree — would have been able to spot and hack away all the deadwood that weighs down this book.