War and terror redefined
Review of 03:02 written by Mainak Dhar
The best thrillers are one long terrifying climax. But terror isn’t something that only the terrorist brings along. And the climax? Well, it invariably begins long before the actual battle. It is all these smaller battles that add up for the final blast… but hey, the reader of this thriller that I am reviewing is already shaken and stirred and is thinking much before the action starts.
A reader of thrillers thinking? Sounds improbable because most thrillers race with each other to give you a massive adrenalin bolus and then sit back to watch you caught up by imagined fear. It is almost as if the author has set up the stage and then simply sits back with a bottle of chilled beer to contentedly watch readers crawl through goose-bumps that the words on a mere page have transformed into. This thriller, however, is quite different.
03:02 by Mainak Dhar is not only about ‘terrorists, rogue states like North Korea, jihadi elements in the Pakistani army, or indeed, a combination of any and all of those’… and there are ‘no air power, no drones, no tanks’ emerging out of every page to shell the reader with an evil grin. Yes, there are ‘men with guns in the darkness’ but they are not always from the invading forces. So what is this novel all about?
I would actually divide the novel into roughly two halves trying to define terror in entirely different ways. The first half begins with an electromagnetic pulse blast that brings to a standstill almost everything with electronics in it. With this key component of this century rendered useless, the reader comes face-to-face with a population that is stranded, isolated, and utterly confused. The beginning is gruesome without an overdose of what is gory because as a reader I realised how difficult it is to survive in conditions that are no longer sane in a modernistic sort of way. I mean, imagine the effect on people if the primary attack is to make every gadget and every device dysfunctional… no, nothing is blown to pieces, no lives lost, and yet everyone feels marooned and unable to do anything. This part of the novel zooms speedily into such a scenario and the ways in which it has the potential to fragment even a well-entrenched society.
This part is about people for whom ‘terror was something we saw on TV or online, and even when it intruded close to home, it was something that happened to someone else’. These are people of a city, which happens to be Mumbai in the novel, who ‘don’t make anything or do anything that actually means something to anyone. Our lives essentially revolve around numbers on a spreadsheet. If those numbers are good, we prosper, and if they’re bad, we suffer.’ These are people who have ‘become used to a world where we didn’t really have to solve basic problems, we just had to know whom to call. Now that we had to find answers to such questions ourselves, we were all out of our depth.’ Page after page is about people torn apart and the protagonist attempting to inject a semblance of cohesiveness into them all. The pages are all about the entire structure of society as we know it to be coming apart at the seams and looters adding to the woes. Yes, everything ‘looked so big, so solid, indeed our lives seemed so predictable and stable – only now were we realising just how fragile a foundation it had all been built on.’ Such is the power of Mainak Dhar painting this dismal scene that I trembled as I read about a world that ‘we no longer have the comforting filter of the TV screen to excise us from the situation. We cannot change this channel. There are no cops to call, or blame. We have to deal with this.’ The first part is where terror strikes in a unique way and of people finally climbing over the barriers that a comfortable life builds slowly and surely over time, to get ready for the actual onslaught of terror.
The first half is about people discovering the ‘soldier somewhere deep within’, the realisation that ‘it doesn’t matter if you stand a chance or not, but whether it’s a fight worth fighting’, and finally acknowledging that ‘the only label that counts in the world is whether you are a coward or not’. The novel is less about shelling and killing, though they are all there in sufficient amount, and more about how we are defined ‘by how we react when those who matter to us are in danger.’
The second half of the novel literally propels the reader into the heart of war as it could be fought within a city. The attack isn’t just on Mumbai but is a global attack on a few key countries and it is the IS that plans to establish its Caliphates everywhere. Time is running out as even the armed forces are demobilised and trying to get back into action by adopting the conventional weapons of the past. It is the motley army of a few conscientious civilians that gets augmented with a few retired army personnel, a couple of tourists who have been in their country’s army, and two naval commandos that must manage to out-smart the trained IS forces that are deploying with speed. What I loved most are the parts where common sense and high spirits join hands to give trained forces one blow after another. Equally fascinating is the way the author brings in students from the IIT to do some unconventional thinking and create lethal bombs out of whatever resources they could lay their hands upon. I mean, a deadly grenade created inside an empty tennis ball and an auto-rickshaw converted into a grenade launcher are just a couple of examples of how jugaad was effectively used to create war-zone opportunities out of nothing.
Take out what I have written so far and all that will be left will be fights, flights, death, and the grand plans of terrorists. Grand plans need strategy to outwit them and the author has made sure that the protagonist continues to find new ways of messing with their mind by letting them feel that they are in control… and yet, the book isn’t about smart plans but about ‘how you adapted and reacted when those plans didn’t work out.’ This is because when you enter a battle, things invariably change.
As I have mentioned before, this is a thriller that lunges headlong both into death and the human mind. The action never seems to leave the pages even when there are no bullets flying or RPGs being fired. And it is for this reason that it is going to stay in my mind for long.
Author: Mainak Dhar
Publisher: Westland Ltd
Price: Rs 295/- (in 2016)
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25 July 2016