Book Review: The Shadow Throne

Book: The Shadow Throne

Author: Aroon Raman

Number of pages: 332

Price: Rs. 250

Aroon Raman’s The Shadow Throne had me hooked from the very beginning. It is a tightly-woven and straightforward plot, but one that chills you. The book opens in the lanes of Shahjahanabad, with ace journalist, Chandrasekhar rushing to the Qutub Minar upon being summoned by a cop acquaintance, Inspector Syed Ali Hassan to investigate a mysterious murder.

Hours later, Hassan is taken off the case (in all likelihood) by the Research & Intelligence Wing (RAW) and the two, along with Chandra’s friend history professor, Meenakshi Pirzada, finds themselves embroiled in a race against time to avert a nuclear holocaust in the sub-continent. We move from cozy Shahjahanabad to the sinister power corridors of Delhi to Pakistan to a hair-raising climax in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan and the site of the fabled Bamiyan Buddhas.

It is a complex read, providing a peek into the high-powered echelons of the defense, security and intelligence in India, namely the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and a glimpse of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate of Pakistan (ISI). It speaks of the rot in the Indian polity, highlighting the lack of transparency and heightened bureaucracy, reminiscent of the present state of affairs. I glossed over a few of the technicalities relating to the nuclear-armed missiles. Too heavy for my liking. But I’m sure folks familiar with these terms would eagerly lap up the finer details in the description and specifications.

It took me a while to get under the skin of each of the characters. You’re not really sure who is playing whom and how. It takes a while before you can confidently take sides. But I loved the characterization of Nalini Ranjan Pant, acting director (South Asia) in the national security council’s JIC. Calm and rational but also a little sentimental. Atypical traits that you’d associate with a bureaucrat. From page 156, the following lines sum it up for me beautifully.

“Through the large bay window to his left, Lutyens’ Delhi stretched away in all its majesty: from the magnificent pile that was Rashtrapati Bhavan at the head of Raisina Hill, the Rajpath flowed arrow straight between the North and South Blocks towards the delicate cupola of India Gate under whose canopy the eternal flame commemorated those who gave up their lives in the defence of their motherland. It was a view that he never tired of no matter how many times he viewed it; each time it renewed him, gave him strength.”

The lines that follow the above-mentioned excerpt describe his sphere of work in very simple terms. “Poring over papers behind a desk; directing spies in the field and analyzing the HUMINT that came in at such risk; scanning the global electronic chatter, the satellite images; getting under the skin of those who would do the country harm and to think as they would. And then connecting the dots. That was the essence of what he did. And if he did it right, lives could be saved.”

It was interesting how the author tied up historical facts dating from the reign of Kanishka to the present-day chaos in Afghanistan, adding to the air of mystery and suspense. The book is a result of intense research and focus. You know it’s a piece of fiction but Raman, with his rich descriptions, makes you want to believe otherwise. The tension between the pages is palpable. Loaded with facts and rich descriptions, the narrative steers away from being judgmental and/or preachy. Raman informs you that Hassan is heavily tortured, but spares you the gory details. Chandra has an injured arm but again, Raman doesn’t let you dwell on it much. The language is crisp, bereft of long-winded melodrama.

The story comes a full circle concluding in cozy Shahjahanabad, right where it began. I thought it was a beautiful touch.

The Shadow Throne is a fabulous read. And I’m going to revisit it again soon. Of course I know how it pans out, but I want to savor the language, revisit the plot for greater clarity and appreciate the finer historical details. Read it for the drama, the adrenaline rush and the eloquence.

Rating: 3.5/5

Learn more about Aroon Raman and The Shadow Throne.

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