Jvalant Nalin Sampat: The Tenth Unknown Historical Fiction Niyogi Books, 2011 Pages 287 / Price Rs295 ISBN 978-81-89738-97-6
Left to conjecture, the reader would infer that this novel is from a veteran pen. They would hardly believe that this could be a debut attempt. For such is the quality of expression – so pellucid; of storyline – so taut; of narration - so engaging. True to the ‘historicity’ of this fiction, every chapter has the date of the relative happening(s) in its title – yet the dates don’t put off the reader, for in no way it is a dreary chronicle. The conjuring of the historical facts is refreshing or illumining depending upon the reader’s level of historical knowledge.
We have many an interesting fact standing rediscovered for us. It is a fiction rooted in the deafening din of drums and horrid bloodbath set in the background of World War II, yet it is not a history of war as such. The war scenario is but yet-another phase through the likes of which generations of trusted and committed teams had over as much as twenty one centuries carried on with their mission of continuously protecting and preserving the highly advanced and hoary wisdom encapsulated in a set of Nine Books – jealously keeping them away from the greedy and unscrupulous elements into whose hands should they fall would wreak a colossal havoc on humankind.
The way Jvalant Nalin Sampat has with an amazing dexterity commandeered a maze of historical events into a drama of suspense giving it at the same time its due sprinkling of wit and humor and even shades of romance is commendable and stands as an eloquent testimony to the wide and deep research that he has obviously done. This is no wonder looking at his credentials, for he “has been an Indian and World War II history buff and adventurer for most of his life. He acquired his degree with a Major in IT and a Liberal Arts Concentration in English from the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York and his MBA from the Copenhagen Business School in Copenhagen, Denmark.” Yet mere knowledge of history and command of language are not enough to produce a work like this. An equal level of inventiveness is required, and the writer has proved that he has it aplenty.
The reader wouldn’t doubt the praise accorded to the novel in the blurb: “The Tenth Unknown is a mix of myth, fact and fiction. Starting in Emperor Ashoka’s court in Rajagriha, Magadha in 232 BC and ending with India’s independence in 1947, this action-packed thriller, set primarily against the backdrop of World War II, is a high-octane and heady cocktail.”
Coming to the ‘heady cocktail’ mentioned in the blurb, yes we have a variety of drinks not just figuratively but even literally to elevate our spirits and also enough cricket to bowl us over. Prithvi the protagonist, a cocktail & club-loving cricketer with a pro-British attitude to begin with would become a changed, disillusioned man thanks to an eye opener (p 15, 87-88). He had studied archaeology at Oxford at his grandfather’s instance (16).
Now a peep into the core of the story. The Nine Unknowns came to know that the Germans had stumbled upon the first of the ancient Nine Books that contained powerful knowledge of practical importance. So they recruited Prithvi, the convener’s grandson to keep a trail of the books and ensure their safety (28). The Nine Books were: 1. Propaganda and Psychological Warfare, 2. Physiology in Warfare, 3. Microbiology, 4. Communication, 5. Light, 6. Alchemy, 7. Gravitation and Rocketry, 8. Cosmology, 9. Sociology (39).
Emperor Ashoka, as a young man, in his quest for greater knowledge about warfare, happened to come across nine books (9). Realizing after the devastating Kalinga war that such wide-ranging powerful knowledge in the hands of greedy and egotistic would spell doom, he entrusted one book each to his nine highly trusted men for safekeeping or hiding, whatever the cost. They should not open the books but pass them on from generation to generation for the benefit of humanity as a whole (41).
The ruins of Nalanda housed the first book. A clue pinpointing the exact location of the second book was located in the vicinity of the first; the exact location of the third book was pinpointed in the vicinity of the second and so on. The Nine Unknowns too did not know the exact location, as a measure of abundant precaution. The back-ups were kept in a safe which required at least five keys to open. Each Unknown was in possession of one key (49).
The clues and the sub-clues were always cryptic and bizarre. And one such was: Wife-elopement here is a custom so tell me dear Rustom, Do you want to pay double for a wife who causes so much trouble? (107)
And mind you the location of one book was, of all places, in a mobile temple!
The hunt got triangular – with Prithvi, the Nazis, and the British in the fray. Only it was an unequal game, Prithvi being an individual and the other two being organised powers. In the process, grappling with inhospitable and hostile terrains, dreadful roads, long & tedious journeys we make it to different places in different countries - Nalanda, Kumbhakonam & Mysore, Nepal & Bhutan, Siam & Singapore, Dambulla (Ceylon), Berlin, Kalmykia (Russia), Afghanistan, Geneva, Wewak (Papua New Guinea) – touching even California, New Mexico, London, and Scandinavia and Finland. Naturally we witness a tangle of fluid international equations, of intelligence and counter-intelligence, of moves and counter-moves made with split-second swiftness, and of infiltrations, of course. Then there were neutral countries like Switzerland, Ireland and Nepal, with such situation being advantageous to one and disadvantageous to the other. Getting possession of one ancient Sanskrit book each, Oppenheimer would go on to produce the nuclear weapon for America, and Doctor von Buren, the V-2 rockets for Germany.
The over 2000-year non-rusting Iron Pillar in Delhi, Tipu Sultan’s rocket technology, and Oppenheimer’s frequent references to the Indian sources while on the weapons of mass destruction and his naming of his nuclear test as the Trinity were but a few examples of the scientific and technological heights the ancient Indians scaled. In answer to the skeptics who don’t want to give much credit to the greatness of India, there is an interesting historiographical discussion of limitations of history in determining the origins of very hoary events; and an advanced civilization had existed for a very long time in the pre-historical times (195-201).
As part of his mission, Prithvi would join the Legion Freies Indien when he had a long and interesting interview with Subhash Chandra Bose (189-194). We have glimpses into how Indians were ill-treated in the colonial rule, for example how they had to crawl off the road if a British person passed by (214). We also see how the military officers were uncompromisingly rank-conscious even amidst conditions of life and death as for example with Youdale and Heidler (265, 271).
The book offers many interesting but lesser known facts: that Bombay passed into British hands from Portuguese by way of dowry in 1665 (13); that Serendip, from which the word ‘serendipity’ has derived, is bastardisation of ‘Swarna Dweep,’ the ancient name of Ceylon (79); that Stalin was Lenin’s nephew (109); that the name of the Pariyatra Parvat (Mountain Abode of Angels) of the pre-Muslim Afghanistan was later on changed to ‘Hindu-Kush’ (Hindu-Killing Mountains) after butchering the Hindus/Buddhists; that there was a festive custom where a young boy could have sex with any woman of his choice – married or otherwise for a day – to lose his virginity; and how on the same occasion a wife could walk out on her husband to marry any other willing man (139-140).
The author has created the right atmosphere appropriate to the different climes and times enveloping the story. For smoking we have Sulima Zigretten – Sondermichung cigarettes (11), Butz-Choquin pipe (67), and Romeo y Julieta and La Aroma de Cuba cigars (171). We look through Carl Zeiss Wehrmacht Dienstglas, the Nazi military service binoculars (221). We buy/bribe with Piastres (in French Indo-China (57), with Dinaras (in Russia) (97), and with Ngultrum (in Bhutan) (156). Then we travel by automobiles like Opal Olympia (in Germany) (12), Austin 7 (in Bombay) (17), and Gaz-M1 or ‘Emka’ (in Russia) (102). We treat ourselves to liquors and drinks like Byculla Cocktail (in Bombay) (14), Stolichnaya vodka with its traditional red and gold label which was 80 proof (in Moscow) (102), Cutty Sark (in Scotland) (131), Cha suma, churned tea (in Bhutan) (159), and Chuak, a traditional Tripuri rice beer (in Calcutta) (168). We wear bespoke suits from Savile Row – either from Gieves & Hawkes or from Norton & Sons (16); fly by de Havilland Fox Moth biplane (38); and go on an attack or defence with Kongsberg Colt revolver produced by Kongsberg Vaapenfabrikk (26), or Panzer tanks (of Germany) (145).
The story has its fair share of humour/wit/sarcasms/satire. Here are a few samples. • See how Prithvi’s father, a pro-British aristocrat responded to Gandhi’s call for boycott of British goods: ‘He wants to help me get freedom by burning my clothes? No thank you sir, I’d rather be clothed than be that free!’ (16) • “In the land of equality, the ones who own autos are more equal than the others” – a reference to Soviet Russia of 1930s (111). • See the dialogue between Prithvi and Babu, his old gardener: ‘... is Pandey here? I have to speak to him’ Babu winced and grumbled, ‘Yes, for the past two weeks he has been staying here as if he is the Master of the house. And he likes his tea with extra sugar. I am not a sugar baron.” (142) Not only the spice of romantic titillation is not destitute; there are even a couple of overt acts of sexual sensationalism. While the liaison between Prithvi and Olga, the receptionist was carnal (97, 102), his hot demand for favor from Svetlana her colleague was a ploy (118-119). Likewise, while Prithvi and Princess Noor tenderly responded to each other (218, 223-224), in Colonel Rohrbreck we see an errant villain who let loose himself on her (209-211). Then there were those offbeat sex customs in a small republic of Kalmykia in the USSR (139-140).
The writer, in the Author’s Note, states that though he has lived in various parts of the world and worked for six years in the US, he is always drawn to India despite its noise and filth. ‘This book is my little way of giving back to a country which has given me everything, from my name to my identity. I wish to bring to readers a part of India which is all but forgotten.’ (282)
On the role of Subhash Chandra Bose and the INA, the writer opines: ‘While they met with limited success militarily, their contribution to India’s freedom movement was much larger after the war, perhaps more significant than that of the Quit India Movement.’ (284) So also the author considers that the immediate provocation for Churchill to withdraw from India was the Bombay Mutiny which rose in protest against the prosecution of the officers of the INA ... and which quickly spread to the other ports... Hence ‘My book is also a tribute to these brave men of the Tiger Legion.’ (285)
On the whole, the novel has all the necessary ingredients to qualify it for a Hollywood film if only an able director’s attention could be drawn to it. What the hunt led to, what happened to the books, and then who or what The Tenth Unknown was – to know the answers grab and take a plunge into the novel.