An American graduate student in India teams up with an intelligence agent and others to prevent a crisis that could spark bloody chaos.
When Jill Rothchild, an American student of ethnography, arrives in India, her biggest problem is finding subjects to interview for her thesis on the Narikuravas, an ethnic group similar to the Roma, or Gypsies. Her father’s friend professor N.V. Venkataraman Rao, or Venkie for short, helps her get started and provides a place to stay. They’ve barely begun when their house is bombed, and Venkie reveals the truth: He’s a retired secret agent for the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s equivalent to the CIA. His old friend and rival in Pakistan—called “Kebab” for his sharp ways—has turned terrorist. Kebab has summoned Venkie out of retirement, taunting him to complete one last mission, to prevent Kebab from unleashing a high-tech attack that could destabilize multiple governments. Jill, Venkie and two Narikuravas (a folk medicine man and his niece) have 40 days and nights to zigzag across India and Pakistan, dodging paid thugs and other dangers, to reach Kebab’s hideaway in time. Jackson (Diving for Carlos, 2011, etc.) has previously written several books about South Indian culture and vividly evokes the beautiful, varied confusion that is India. The characters’ long and meandering journey covers a lot of ground, from teeming cities to quiet villages, and involves encounters with colorful characters, including a Bandit Queen, a Bollywood star and a famous guru. Jill’s narrative voice is lively, engaging and thoughtful, and the novel includes many well-observed details, such as the tea-stall keepers during monsoon season who “fashion little boats from bottle caps, with oil and a lit wick, launching the little glowing crafts to go exploring currents down the street, just for the sweet and simple fun of watching the miniature boats float out of sight.” However, one plot device, that keeps giving away the group’s presence to Kebab’s thugs, is immediately obvious to readers but not to the protagonists; their failure to connect the dots may cause some readers to doubt their intelligence.
Although its suspense level could be higher, this novel satisfies with its wonderfully complex and vivid setting.