The Sialkot Saga by Ashwin Sanghi adds another layer to the brand Ashwin Sanghi – whom I would call the King of parallel narratives. He loves to bring out the parallels between an old story and a contemporary story. He loves to draw parallels between the stories of well-known characters from the past and contemporary characters that are very close to some real ones. This makes reading his disclaimer in the beginning very amusing – I am sure it has been drafted by a trusted lawyer.
In The Sialkot Saga – Sialkot has a rather small guest appearance towards the end of the story. The story though spans from the time of Ashoka in 3rd BCE to 2010 CE. The research code that was passed on from then must pass on to the rightful heir. The story begins at two ends and meets where the science meets mythology.
The main storyline which is 98.5% of the book, takes you through a contemporary history of India after 1947 CE. The story moves again parallel within this sub-plot through two characters. One the son of a businessman in Kolkata and other a key player in Mumbai underworld. Two protagonists grow independently but like a Bollywood movie their paths have to cross each other and so they do. Through the eyes of these boys, you see the major events in India that shaped the country as it stands today. For those of us who know of these events only as historical ones, tend to see them as contemporary with the flow of the story. How many of us can imagine Atal Behari Vajpayee as a young activist at the border of Punjab and Kashmir! Or how many of us think of Rajiv Gandhi when he was just a pilot.
We all came to know of Harshad Mehta once the scam was unearthed. But this story kind of takes you to the backdrop that gave birth to the people like Harshad Mehta or the scams that they did. I liked the nuanced small journeys. Like the evolution of comic books as the boys grow. Or changing moods of Indian cinema or random events like Ganesha idols drinking milk or an American president visiting India. You know all these events but seldom do we see them as part of a larger canvas or a single narrative. In The Sialkot Saga, Ashwin weaves these threads very skillfully. And it is almost like a recount of all important events since 1947.
It is the story of the rise of businessmen who do nothing except using their brains to grab every opportunity possible and twist it for their benefit. They can con anyone while being absolutely within the boundaries of the law of the land. This businessman is a perfect example of people who know how to work through the system or make the system work for themselves. Money and the power that money brings with it, is their only motivation, their only romance in life.
Another story is the rise of an underworld Don, who does everything that the law tells you not to do. But always has a heart that wants to help the poor. Maybe for a price or maybe for a future favor. Or maybe for building a support base. This story tells you about leaders how they build a wide net for themselves by helping people at crucial times. Or by making sure that anyone they help can help them back.
There is, of course, a romantic thread that links both the protagonist. They both fall in love with the same girl, thankfully not at the same time. There is even a lost and found story – that reminds you of Manmohan Desai films. There are mothers that have not so faint resemblance with Nirupa Roy.
The climax is a bit of twist with the heavy dose of science. I am keen to read some of the books mentioned in the bibliography – especially the ones on Rasayana. I did not get the relevance of Mahamritunjay Mantra throughout the book. And I understand that author wanted to bind the story with that Mantra, but I lost the connection completely. It is used as more as a hook for the story.
At almost 600 pages, you need a lot of patience to read this book. And your hand needs some strength to balance it between your fingers.
Language is simple, editing better than most books these days though not flawless. The pace is racy and moves over decades swiftly.