S HUSSAIN ZAIDI
Tinsel town tropes and long lectures aside, this is a solidly crafted thriller that gives a sneak peek into the workings of the intelligence services
In downtown Mumbai, audacious terrorists strike in broad daylight. Right in front of the security forces, a VIP - namely the SPG of BSF (don't ask me what that means but let's suppose it's something army-related) - gets assassinated, his motorcade is bombed, and there's immense collateral damage.
Despite the assault being meticulously planned and cleverly orchestrated, ostensibly by some foreign hand or the other, investigators Vikrant Singh and his mentor Shahwaz Ali Mirza, who are deputed from RAW to file a report on the case, sense there's something fishily amateurish about the random shooting and the crude bomb.
The suicide attackers turn out to be regular sons of the soil and evidence points towards the involvement of a home-grown sleeper cell.
It's their worst nightmare come true. But as Mumbai police flashes a red alert and ex post facto safety measures are taken, the investigating team begins to suspect a link between the SPG's killing and a hit-and-run accident a week earlier, in which an ex-PM was severely maimed. Unfortunately, the politician is in coma and can't shed light on matters.
The conspiracy soon appears way bigger than expected and the foreign hand behind it turns out to belong not to Pakistan's ISI but the West Asian ISIS. A socially conscious cop, Ashok Mankame, who is drafted by the investigators to help out with legwork, has a meltdown and delivers a Bollywoodish speech, "…this is definitely not my fucking world. My world is finding angry teenagers checking out ISIS websites and scaring them by showing them videos of the terrible deaths that they could die in Syria."
Despite such didactic elements that pop up as and when the author gets the urge to lecture, and time-tested tinsel-town tropes like estranged brothers, this book is, broadly speaking, a solidly crafted thriller with several delightfully unanticipated twists. An interesting touch is saintly social worker Rehmat Khan, an informant who turns out to have many strings to her bow.
Another is a Hebrew killing machine on loan from Mossad whose name Ben Solo puns on a Star Wars character and who, being invincibly proactive, gets credit for much of the coolest action, while the more realistically portrayed Indian intelligence officers mostly stare at a whiteboard in a safehouse while fiddling with their smartphones, waiting for something to happen. Until one of them, in a comic relief moment of sorts, puts a syringe in the foreigner's neck to prevent him from hogging their limelight.
The Endgame distinguishes itself from run-of-the-mill pulp by its deep insights into the factual matters that the plot builds on, no doubt due to the author's credentials. Hussain Zaidi is a well-known name in Indian tabloid journalism, whose work has inspired movies and Netflix shows, whilst his non-fiction bestsellers like Mafia Queens of Mumbai are landmarks in the domestic true-crime genre.
This results in an impression of authenticity, of actually getting a peek at what's hidden behind the smoke and mirrors of the intelligence services, further enhanced by the alphabet soup of acronyms facing us on every page, like NIA, CIA, IB, NSG, DCP, DSG, ATS, etc.
Unfortunately, though Mumbai usually provides an unparalleled backdrop to any novel, here it is represented only by place names such as Mira Road, Goregaon-Dahisar belt, and Mumbra, geotags that don't bring the milieus alive for anybody who doesn't know the city beyond Colaba and Bandra. Pretty much the only local colour in the entire book is a single cup of "cutting chai" ingested during a stakeout.
The journalistic spirit further hampers the raciness of an otherwise taut narrative when Zaidi is unable to mute the impulse to provide readers with heavy-handed explanations as well as backstory info-dumps, stuff that ought to be woven into the novel's fabric.
On the other hand, this edifying content is, well, very edifying. The book is written along the lines of other recent works of "faction" - thinly veiled issue-focused essayistic fiction - in which authors provide scenarios around devastating events that might just befall us in these strange times: such as Sidin Vadukut's Bombay Fever, which prophesied a pandemic breakout in Mumbai, Amitav Ghosh's Gun Island that dealt with climate catastrophes, even ex-POTUS Bill Clinton's debut thriller, The President is Missing, which discussed cyberterrorism targeting the Internet of Things and how it might potentially result in a complete shutdown of the American lifestyle.
Many important ideas to mull over, even if Zaidi's novel in the end feels like a cinematic treatment awaiting a director and suitable actors to blow life into its protagonists and antagonists.
COURTSEY: THE HINDU