Saturday Features

A touch of drama

  • Greta Rana’s Hostage is heart-breaking but it often loses focus and turns needlessly melodramatic

Jan 5, 2019-

Over the years many harrowing tales have been told of Nepali men and women who go to toil in foreign soil and meet unfortunate ends. Perhaps the most brutal one remains the killings of 12 Nepali men in Iraq in August 2004 by Islamic extremists. Greta Rana’s new book, Hostage, is a fictional narrative of the 2004 incident that shocked Nepalis across the world and brought hundreds to the capital’s streets demanding justice for the victims.

Although fiction, the book is heavily inspired by the true stories of Nepali migrant workers. Hostage revolves around two men: Hari Prasad, a boatman from Rapti belonging to the Tharu community, and Siva Shrestha, an engineer who is disillusioned with the state of politics and decides to join the Maoist movement. Over the course of the book, which spans 14 years, the lives of these two men with starkly different backgrounds come to intersect and culminate in a tragic ending.

Hari is a boatman who is eager to retain his ancestral land and he sees no other alternative for a stable income apart from heading to the Middle East for work. Hari wants his children to be ‘tuloh manches’. As a reader, I grieved over Hari’s financial constraints and his obligations, realising my own problems were miniscule in comparison.

Rana manages to generate emotions through Hari’s ordeals, particularly seemingly mundane ones, as when Hari seeks help from a fellow passenger to fill out the departure. This inability to fill out a simple form is an empathetic moment, one that is emblematic of the experiences that many migrant workers go through.

However, the third chapter, where Siva is introduced, was a disappointment. Hari’s chapter abruptly ends when he heads to Dubai, and the focus shifts to Siva. The first two chapters decide the fate of the book.

I was already invested in Hari’s narrative and was yearning to read more on his life. But with the abrupt switch to Siva, Rana loses her grip.

While Siva does interrupt the flow of Hari’s narrative, his story’s introduction is as compelling as Hari’s. Siva is an engineer-turned-Maoist guerrilla, who is posing as a servant in a rich Nepali Congress politician’s house. He is caught in a fix when Anjeli, the sharp, intelligent daughter-in-law of the house, finds homemade bombs under his bed. Here, the reader would want to know more about Siva’s journey as a Maoist guerrilla, but instead, Rana chooses to focus on Anjeli’s background.

Just when Siva’s story starts gaining momentum, it is again interrupted by Hari’s transition from Dubai to Jordan, where he meets Siva. The deviation from one character to another can confuse and lose readers’ interest immediately. As the story develops, you believe that Hari and Siva are the two protagonists of this heart-wrenching book, but unfortunately, Rana loses her interest in Siva and begins to focus more on Hari. It is revealed that Siva has a soft corner for Hari due to how naive the latter is, whereas, Hari is rather judgmental about him. However, the author fails to divulge further into the relationship dynamics between these two men.

The book takes a big leap in the chapter ‘A dead-end job’, when Hari takes up a new job in a desert depot that pays him $2,500 a month. His dreams are shattered when along with 12 other Nepali men, he is taken hostage by the terrorists who mistake them for American spies.

Rana is at her best when she is writing about emotions that are hard-hitting enough to bring shivers down the spine to the most stoic of us all. It wouldn’t be untoward to shed a tear or two for Hari and his unusual situation, which leads to a dead end. However, on the other end, Siva’s ending wasn’t compelling enough, it felt forced and unoriginal.

Post Hari’s death, the book hits rock bottom, as the story jumps from one character to another, making readers lose their patience. Rana could have merged two chapters ‘Karim’ and ‘Arjun’ into one and explained how they help Hari, the 13th Nepali man whose identity wasn’t revealed by the media during the Iraq crisis.

Rana’s Hostage left me confused in many instances. I had to re-read chapters multiple times just to get a grasp of the narratives surrounding each character. New characters are quoted out of the blue, which often breaks the momentum. As Rana loses her flow in so many chapters, I felt like switching to another book but I decided to give her a chance. But with the chapter ‘Karim’, she goes overboard. She brings in Karim, Shahid and Hassan, all of whom are involved in providing justice to Hari, but the narrative goes haywire. It even took me a while to understand that Karim and Shahid were two different individuals.

When I read the blurb of the book, there was already enough of a hint of Hari’s tragic ending. The book is predictable. Hari and Siva’s hardship makes one introspect but the book lacks passion and depth. The book often turns Bollywood-esque, with so much drama happening, apart from the climax. Even Bollywood’s propensity for coincidences makes an appearance when Hari’s daughter Subhadra plans to marry Arjun, the man who Hari first met on a flight and who fights for his justice.

Hostage would have been an interesting book had Rana maintained the momentum of her characters and stuck to the flow of Hari’s story. Often, there was too much happening, and even unimportant characters were described to a fault, which bores a reader.

The way Rana has described the story and developed her characters, Hostage would’ve perhaps worked better as a film than a book.

Author: Greta Rana

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Published: 05-01-2019 09:12

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