Remember Fatty and his team in the Five Find-Outers series? Or Snubby and Co? Or the Famous Five? Or the Adventure series with Jack, Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Kiki the Parrot? When I turned the pages of Gypsy Escapades by William J. Jackson I was pushed into memories of those childhood reads by Enid Blyton; this time in an adult mode, blended with a Bollywood style, and with an American heroine.
This book could well have been titled “Around India and Across the Borders in Forty Days”; for that’s what the American gal Jill does, along with Uncle Venkie, and two “gypsy” (Narikurava) friends she picks up while she is in India, to complete the research she is doing at Princeton. Jill is also the narrator and the voice of the novel and the text contains a liberal sprinkling of Yiddish words, indicating Jill’s ancestry.
As the blurb says, the story is a “suspense thriller” where the conflict factor is built around whether a “rag-tag quartet of new-found friends can outwit terrorists during a crisis in India”. Venkie, a well-known academician and journo, is a Gandhian and also a RAW agent. A “frenemy” and classmate of Venkie’s, called “Kebab”, whose location is in Pakistan, and who is planning “not only their demise but a cataclysmic strike against India”, is the person whom the quartet should meet in 40 days and this without getting caught by Kebab’s men. Kebab, the villain, is planning an “unprecedented assault on the electronic infrastructure that would wreak havoc all over the sub-continent”. And Venkie actually gets someone in RAW to agree to their wild plan.
The Fearless Four set off on their 40-day jaunt across India, starting from Chennai, which is where Jill and Venkie get the Narikurava duo roped in. Sing is the quintessential rope-snake-animal-friendly-herb medicine man whose qualities come into good use across their unbelievably adventurous journey through the Indian terrain. Kinnari is a fortune-teller girl, whose slim frame and innocence come in handy too. They meet a lot of “poor people” in both urban and rustic ambiences and the reader is told plenty about how each of these groups live and how crazily diverse, and crazily crazy India can be.
The quartet gets to face big trouble: bomb blasts, thug-chasing and living in cash-strapped situations and living off the trees and plants in the “jungle”. They also meet people like film celebrities, a brave dacoit queen who wants to surrender and merge into the mainstream, a naxalite or two, other undercover RAW agents, mendicants and god-men in their ashrams, brides at weddings, all during their odyssey towards Kebab’s place.
They wear disguise after disguise to keep away the attention of Kebab’s thugs, and in the midst of it, Jill contracts jaundice; they get delayed and this allows for some Bollywood elements of romantic gender play into the story line. There is also a situation where a servant girl appointed to look after Jill gets killed in a bomb meant for Venkie, and this is dismissed as routine, Jill and Venkie go about their business quite normally after that.
The book parades a huge array of characters, most of whom do not make any impact on the reader’s mind. The “I/he /she/Uncle Venkie said” style of dialogue which propels the narration forward, the repetition of facts, quite take away the joy of reading in a supposedly fast moving plot.
Venkie speaks “Madras Only” English sometimes, but lapses into normalcy at others. But the Madras “Only” English reappears later in some characters from the Northern parts of India, which doesn’t quite fit in. The character of Venkie is a shocker, heaven forbid that even one person like that is in the RAW, he actually admits that he is working undercover for the RAW to quite a few people, strangers at that.
The endeavour at exoticism is too apparent. See how Jill “hears” gypsies making love on the streets and gives a graphic description, bordering on the erotic. Jill’s passion for the Narikurava tribe is repeated in a monotonous manner. There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo about Narikuravas and Jill’s reiterated opinions of humid, poor, and unclean India. The reader remembers the danger looming over the sub-continent from time to time, but the foursome do not always seem in a hurry.
The writing is clumsy, and there are too many badly constructed sentences, that one wonders if the book is edited at all. Jill’s narration has a condescending tone and the storyline under-estimates the intelligence and patience of the reader. How can an inexperienced researcher from America think she can thwart a nuclear explosion with help from a semi-retired RAW undercover agent and twoNarikuravas?
And at the end of it all, Jill goes home, and the others, well, I will leave the spoilers to those who will still try to read the book. The only suspense I could find in the book was trying to imagine when the rigmarole would end, and not really how.
Gypsy Escapades, William J. Jackson, Rupa, Rs.250.