Book Review: Surpanakha by Hariharan Iyer

Political controversies, mudslinging, rampant misuse of law, propaganda pushed forward by media and activists, personal motivations – all these and much more defines the current state of Indian politics today. Motivated and intrigued by these aspects and many more controversies that have dominated the news lately, Hariharan Iyer pens down a political thriller that delves deeper into the abyss and makes the reader ponder, what if, there is another version of the story.

Although the title of the book, ‘Surpanakha’ gives an impression of its being a mythological tale or retake on mythological character, the book is far from it. The author does not bring alive the character of Surpanakha from the pages of mythology, rather uses her personality and character to give a new twist to his tale. A blend of contemporary politics and elements of thriller; ‘Surpanakha’ etches out a story of Sesha, the young and charming Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu – ‘a symbol of efficiency’ who gets embroiled in one political controversy after another. Just acquitted from the allegation of being the mastermind behind the murder of 73 Kannadigas, he finds himself in the midst of another controversy where he is accused of sexually harassing a young nurse. However, this time the evidence is damning and even the supporters of the chief minister are in dilemma regarding his innocence.

Full of twists and turns, the author takes the reader on a thrilling journey where everything known is turned upside down. A country where political scams and scandals rocks the assemblies every now and then, where criminals instead of being in jail preside in legislatures; it is not difficult to assume that every other politician is corrupt and that it is rather the norm than the exception. However, the writer in Iyer plays around with this idea and makes the reader think, what if, everything is just propaganda? Although writing a political thriller, the author asks uncomfortable questions – whether free speech is really free and unbiased when media is funded by big corporate houses? Are activists and NGOs really as selfless or do they forward they own propaganda and settle scores in the guise of social work? What is the objective of media trials – to generate TRP and deliver sensational news or to bring out truth?

With the portrayal of interesting and enigmatic cast of characters, Sesha – a brilliant and able administrator or a criminal mastermind, Zarina – defender of the weak or a jilted lover, Catherine – a passionate reporter or an opportunist, Indrani – a people’s lawyer or a mere schemer; the author denounces every stereotype – politicians are vile and evil, activists are honourable and selfless, journalists are guided by the gospel of finding truth et cetera. However, the most damning portrayal of all is the vilifying and blatant misuse of law specifically when it comes to crimes against women, ‘Indian frenzy over crimes against women has reached such crazy levels in recent years that they don’t want to listen to the alleged perpetrator; they don’t want to know the truth. To them, the accuser is the epitome of truth and the accused has no option but to accept the charge.”’ Even though there are many recent incidents that vindicate the author’s standpoint, the author falls into the same trap of over-generalization and suggests the victim is always venerated and her version is read as a gospel of truth and the accused is denounced upon, however, the same is not true.  

A political commentary of sorts and a thriller, ‘Surpanakha’ is a well-structured book with captivating plot and notable cast of characters that holds the interests of the reader till the very last page of the book.

However, towards the end, the author oversimplifies every political conflict as a mere propaganda and nothing more; and almost every character, a conniver and a schemer, ‘“Ultimately it turned out to be a simple case of a Surpanakha wreaking revenge for a failed love”’, ‘Insolent. Obstinate. Unreasonable. Unrepentant. Regina concluded that she had identified the right candidate for the role of an activist.” Yet, in spite of a few generalizations, Hariharan Iyer tells another side of the tale which is often brushed aside and dismissed as falsehood and enthralls the reader’s attention till the very end.

P.S: A review copy of the book had been sent by the author in return of an honest and unbiased review

Links: Amazon | Flipkart | Goodreads

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