Two men pursuing different paths in their searches for redemption come together in Mumbai in a strange East-meets-West collision.
John Lock is 60 and ill when he leaves England and a life marked by disappointment to seek out a martial arts teacher in India named Bibhuti Nayak, who is 41. Hoping to inspire India’s poor to strive for a better life, Bibhuti engages in extreme feats of strength and pain endurance that also qualify him for entries in Guinness World Records. He has concrete slabs smashed on his groin with a sledgehammer. He performs 1,448 sit-ups in an hour and has 31 watermelons dropped on his stomach from a height of 10 meters in one minute. John has made his pilgrimage to help with Bibhuti’s ultimate display of masochism or stoicism: breaking the most baseball bats on the Indian’s body. Cruelty and humor cohabited comfortably in Kelman’s well-received debut, Pigeon English (2011), and this sophomore outing seems ripe for a similar coupling. There are glimpses of that in a brief, delightful visit with monks who “believe in table tennis as the ideal way to practise their religion” and in a scene in which John rescues a shipment of snow globes during a monsoon. But Bibhuti’s feats are recorded in chapters from his book in progress and feature an earnest sermonizing style rendered in needlessly broken English, given that he is also a respected writer for the English-language Times of India. John comes to a grudging acceptance of God after several one-sided chats with the deity. Neither pilgrim’s progress is very convincing.
While the book offers some fine prose and observations of Indian life, it’s also marked by clunky stretches and an awkward seriousness that suggests a writer still trying to sort out his thoughts.