Yes, there are women and the narrative is racy, but the book isn’t a feminist thriller, says Anusha Parthasarathy.
There are clues even on the cover. Splattered blood dripping down the side, a violent red sari, a wheelchair and a woman; these are central to Ashok Banker’s new thriller Blood Red Sari.
The first of his Kali quartet, Blood Red Sari is filled with wild imagery and begins in the first person. One of the protagonists (you don’t get to find out who, but can foster a guess) is performing Kali Puja to the goddess in Kolkata in gratitude. She calls Kali a “repository of all feminine power” and goes on to explain how the Trimurthi of the Vedic pantheon (Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma) combined “the evanescence of a thousand suns and the spiritual strength of the great sage Katyayana” to give birth to Kali. And then the chase begins.
Banker introduces his protagonists and the cities they are tied to with the rich descriptions that his writing is known for. Anita, a private investigator from Kerala, recalls spending her childhood vacations in an untainted Karkidakam with her friend Lalima. (Banker hints at Anita being a lesbian). This place is later overrun by “hordes of the Undead” (tourists) who made the beach dirty. She snaps out of her reverie when her brother tells her Lalima is dead.
Nachiketa is wheelchair-bound and comes across as a strong, confident woman. She drives through Delhi in her car, has a small practice in Vasant Kunj and takes care of a stray called Justice and its pups. Shiela, meanwhile, is a mean machine who owns a ladies’ gym in Kolkata. She’s worked her way to the top and no one messes with her, except a government official who’s hot on her tracks. Soon, they find their worlds turned upside down.
What ties these characters together? A yellow manila envelope, sent by Lalima to four women. The fourth character is only mentioned in the book. Perhaps the sequels will reveal more.
Banker’s characters are chased across the cities by different groups of men who won’t stop at killing them in order to get to the envelope. The story keeps shifting between the three women. In between the chasing, blood-shedding and ceaseless running, the girls deal with their pasts. While Banker brings out in vivid detail the conflict that Anita and Nachiketa go through, much of Shiela’s life is shrouded in mystery. Her intense anger and body language warrant more than what is given and perhaps the reader needs a little more background to relate to her.
The book is told from a woman’s point of view, so much so that you might sometimes turn back to the cover just to make sure Banker is still its author. His women are strong and unrelenting. And yet, at some point, he does bring out a vulnerable moment that makes them relatable.
Nachiketa is seen explaining her marital trauma in court as she appeals for divorce. “They kept yelling at me that if I wouldn’t pay in cash, I would pay in kind. Tara hadkanu maas kadi leisu was a favourite phrase they shouted over and over again, which translates into ‘We will take even the marrow from your bones’.”
Anita, on the other hand is raped by her brothers when they find out she’s gay. “Isaac, who had tried more than once to fumble with her breasts or caress her ass — and Lalima’s too — when he’d had a few too many…”
The narrative is fast and Banker doesn’t linger. He cleverly veers away from describing events like Lalima and Anita’s discovery of their sexuality without filling in too much detail, and focuses more on the present. The plot is rather straightforward, at least as of now; the women are stuck in the middle of what seems like a national scandal. Desperate to stay alive, they reach out to each other to solve the puzzle.
Even though the book is labelled a “feminist thriller”, it isn’t one. Yes, it talks about women but it also addresses issues like terrorism and human trafficking, which is why, sometimes, you’re left wondering if the story tries to tie too many things together. Another mystery is the connection to Kali; is it just the reference to the violence and blood that will be shed or is there more?
Then again, the story is only beginning. Banker, as always, leaves the reader wondering. And unlike his mythology series, where he retells the tales of others, this series is all his.
Blood Red Sari, Ashok Banker, HarperCollins, Rs.299.