Thursday, November 30, 2017

A ‘Marvel’ origin story rooted in India

Name: Awaken
Author: Ashok K Banker
Publisher: PAN
Pages: 222
Price 299

At the first glance, Ashok K Banker’s new novel Awaken (the first book in the proposed Shakti Trilogy) reads like a derivative Superhero origin story that Marvel Comics might have rejected. This is indeed a negative reaction; but this is exactly how the novel greets you. At once level, this is understandable. This is your typical YA fantasy fiction targeted at teenagers, particularly girls (and why not, young girls read more than boys), especially those fans of Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games and so on. Even the language Banker uses is hip and cool (and you grudgingly admire Banker’s skill in mimicking the speech patterns of 20-something girls.).

This is when Banker’s skill as a storyteller grabs you, and doesn’t let go until you have finished reading the book. After all, this is the author who successfully retold the Ramayana in a series of books. But mythology and sci-fi fantasy are two very different beasts, and it is to Banker’s credit that he manages to tame both. He knows his tropes: Introduce a vague threat and push unsuspecting central characters into an undefined conflict before they get their ‘powers.’ Then introduce a sidekick to guide the superhero into her destiny to fight the ultimate evil.

Here, this ultimate evil (a Sauron prototype, if you like) is simply called the Haters, an alien race. They are coming to destroy the Earth. It has been foretold, by another alien race centuries ago, who left a solution in some Indian genes, which will be awakened when the threat is imminent, or some such gobbledygook, which are not really importantly.

What is important is that these people with alien genes will be called Perservers and they will have different powers. Pretty basic, really, except how Bankers locates the story in the context of contemporary India, and introduces three flesh and blood teenage girls, whose lives are disrupted when they realise that they are Perservers.

Kiara from Delhi starts to grow bullet-proof and golden fur. Ahmedabad’s Saumya learns to teleport at will. Sia from Nagaland can kill with an unheard song. As this is the first book of a series, we only get the setup and Banker sets up the scene for a grand adventure, by convincingly locating his three heroines in the real world before fantasy kicks in.

Ultimately, what won me over was the introduction of a Naga character, rooted in her milieu, in a YA fantasy fiction, even when representation of India’s northeast remains scanty in the mainstream. The encounter between the Naga teenagers and a bunch of Indian Army jawans has such poignant realism and newsworthy relevance that I would happily recommend this book to any discerning readers. Can’t wait for the next instalment, Assemble, even if it reminds you of The Avengers.

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