Thursday, July 10, 2014


Title: Anti-Social Network
Author: Piyush Jha
Publisher: Rupa Publications India

Pages: 200

I was so impressed with Compass Box Killer that I was actually looking forward to reading the next in the Mumbaistan series. I felt that in Inspector Virkar of the Mumbai crime branch, we had a hero of the finest calibre. One that fit the swashbuckling persona of the best of the protagonists of the genre.

Unfortunately, in the Anti-Social Network, the aura surrounding Inspector Virkar has dimmed somewhat. Understandably so, because with a bunch of cyber criminals to contend with, Virkar is totally out of his element. And yet, he bumbles on, with his usual never-say-die spirit, so characteristic of the city in which he (and the author) thrives, and manages to work out an answer to the problem in classic police fashion.

In this novel, some college students are found murdered. The killings are particularly gruesome, with the three victims missing their penis, tongue and eyes respectively, a clear message to the dead that they are unable to appreciate. Inspector Virkar of the Mumbai Crime Branch is called in, and his investigations reveal that the killings have a lot to do with some sex videos and the consequent blackmail and extortion. 

A college professor, Naina Rai, wheedles her way into the investigation. Soon she and her student, Richard, an expert hacker and a cocaine addict, are playing an important role in the plot.

When Virkar follows up on the case diligently and begins to come too close to the truth, he finds himself the target of the criminals. How he seeks to find the identity of the killer and the mastermind is the crux of the novel.

Jha is very good at descriptions and at building the action in the novel, scene by scene, layer by layer. Here you can actually imagine the scenes and it is easy to imagine the book as being some kind of a film that you are watching on the screen. That his muse is Mumbai city, in all its hard-nosed, unglamorous glory, is easy to see, and the author does complete justice to the setting.

For the most part, the writing was gritty, and made the reader feel as if he or she were a part of the action. I had been totally impressed by Compass Box Killer, with the manner in which it made the reader feel a part of the investigation, and with the way in which clues were revealed bit by bit, each clue leading to the next and, inexorably, to the climax.

However, I felt that a lot of that charge and adrenaline rush was missing in this book. I didn’t always feel as though the author meant to take the reader along. As a reader, I wasn’t as fully invested in Anti-Social Network as I was in Jha’s earlier novel. That might have been partly because Inspector Virkar was unfamiliar with how to deal with cyber crime. But Virkar’s computer illiteracy should not have translated into a weakness in the plot of the novel.

There were some themes that played out again. The mentor-protégé relationship was a theme that was exploited much better in Compass Box Killer.

[Spoiler alert: The next paragraph contains spoilers. Skip if you would rather find out for yourself.] 

The fact that Virkar’s romantic/sexual liaisons tend to betray his trust is another oft-played theme. I just hope Virkar will learn from his past experiences and steer clear of any affairs in the future.

The Marathi and Hindi transliterations are tedious because they are not done well. The mother of the first victim says to her husband, “Aooo deya ho,” meaning Virkar should be allowed to enter the house. The line should have read, “Yeoo dya ho.”

In another instance, the author uses the word ‘Girahak” instead of “Grahak.”

The ‘filmi’ dialogue, straight from a Bollywood potboiler, is also too much to stomach.

The writing could have done with tighter editing. There are some descriptions that add nothing to the plot of the novel. The extended introduction to Willingdon College makes no sense, particularly when it really doesn’t play that great a part in the plot.

The best thing that I can say about Anti-Social Network is that it draws attention to the potential for foul play inherent in the tendency of youngsters today to share every little detail about themselves on social media. This proves to be their undoing, as their digital footprint has the potential to harm them in more ways than one. In sounding a warning to the younger generation, Jha has lent a higher purpose to his novel.

Looked at as an example of crime fiction, however, Anti-Social Network fails to meet the mark. In the best traditions of Bombay slang, this book is ‘timepass.’

For a well written read in the Indian crime fiction genre, I’d still recommend Compass Box Killer.

The book was received as part of Reviewers Programme on">The Tales Pensieve

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