The last time I voluntarily picked up fiction must have been while in college. It is not a genre I enjoy reading much, except if by a few of my favorite authors. But when I heard that Sutapa Basu’s debut is a thriller called Dangle, I was too curious not to pick it up. Having read a lot of Sutapa Basu’s short stories, I never pegged her as a ‘thriller’ writer. According to me her forte is describing human emotions; the thing that made her the winner of the TOI Write India contest under Amish Tripathi. Her story, in Amish’s own words, made him cry. Sutapa captures the finest of the fine nuances of them, which a less discerning writer wouldn’t be able to even catch, let alone write about so beautifully. And, a large variety and profound depth of emotions isn’t something one expects in a thriller novel. That conundrum fanned my curiosity and spurred me into buying the book.
I would hate to divulge the plot in any way, thereby compromising your reading pleasure. But I should tell you, that Dangle is not your usual run-of-the-mill thriller, with cars chasing each other and guns bellowing every few pages. The real thrill of Dangle lies in how it leaves the reader dangling, throughout the story, as precariously, as the main character Isphita Sen. You jump edgily, every time she does; you look over your shoulder every time she does. That is how crisp and articulate the narration is. Also, unlike most thrillers, its gripping plot also fuses well many subjects of deeper connotation and social implication – women’s emancipation, the complicated challenges of living an Army life, domestic violence, sexuality of independent modern women, India’s disregard of its obligations as a popular tourist location, challenges of the elderly NRI, the pain of suffering with a mental illness and not knowing whom to turn to. The one that particularly caught my attention was militancy in the northeast. The author captures accurately and poignantly – the struggle of the common citizen caught between the militants and the armed forces; the everyday problems of living in constant fear of violence; the ability to tune out the horrific sounds of gunfights and bomb blasts; the spirit of resilience one needs, to continue clinging on to one’s homeland and thereby to the hope of a peaceful future.
The author is a master of narration when it comes to setting the scenes. In the opening sequence itself, the descriptions are so vivid that you find yourself standing next to Ipshita in that Chicago hotel room window, looking with horror at the helicopter outside. From there on it becomes impossible for the reader to leave her side. Describing the beauty of the characters’ surroundings with the minutest of details and making them all stand out distinctly from each other, from Chicago to Delhi to Imphal to Batam, was for me one of the high points of reading this book. You can quite literally smell the flowers, feel the ravishing beauty of India’s northeast fill your senses, taste the saltiness of the sea water in Indonesia. The city descriptions in fact would put to shame, some of the best travelogues I have read. I loved the idea of Ipshita being an ingenious travel correspondent, who creates these rather unique travel chats. That lent so much relevance and credibility to all the wonderfully etched location and travel details, which otherwise may have come across as needlessly extensive.
The characters are another high point of this book. Ipshita’s character, for example, is a very finely sketched modern day career woman; in love with her job and freedom, and dealing with the usual everyday problems. And of course, some very unusual ones too; as you progress with the story. Ipshita is shown constantly dangling, between courage and fear; between the past demons and the present enigmas. She is feisty and confident, and yet her constant fear and vulnerability comes across as very believable. I also liked how with every travel that Ipshita takes, and with the sights that she comes across, her mind takes a journey of its own. She looks at the roadside flowers and moss in Chicago and thinks of telling her father, an avid gardener, about that remarkable idea. She looks at the buildings in Chicago and wonders why Delhi’s architecture, with far more significant history than those Chicago skyscrapers, does not get the limelight it deserves.
Aditya Rao, Ipshita’s childhood friend is another wonderful character. He is a real catch; a gentleman, with a sincerity and passion for Ipshita which warms the reader’s heart. And yet the maturity to balance his love for her with the platonic friendship she considered it to be. Ujjal and Shiuli, Ipshita’s parents are perfect examples of parents who are indulgent towards their child while giving her the freedom she needs to grow and flourish.
My only discomfort with the story was Vikram’s character and how his atonement needed a clearer definition and rationalization, in order for me to understand the others’ acceptance of him. To me, he got off quite easy for doing something as despicable as he did. I guess I was expecting the other characters to despise him more explicitly and intensely. However, a little deliberation over Vikram’s treatment in the story brought me to a very painful but logical conclusion. That it is, in fact, a very realistic portrayal of how society deals with people who commit such grave and heinous crimes. They retaliate with fiery rage, for that very moment, but then forget the whole episode, too quickly. Because actioning on them and bringing such criminals to justice needs far more strength and perseverance.
But all things considered, Dangle is a fantastic and gripping read. A wonderful example of a debut novel; very different from the author’s previous works and yet so impeccably delivered, so as to carve a unique niche for herself.