Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal
Title: Eleventh Hour
Author: S. Hussain Zaidi
Publisher: HarperCollins (2018)
Pages: (Paperback) 256
In the movie Tiranga, the popcorn thriller which had managed to polarise its critics and eventually gain cult status based solely on television reruns and pirated DVDs, Raj Kumar tells his enemies, ‘Just like my bullets, my tongue also talks straight with my enemies,’ thus setting a precedence for years of patriotic thrillers to come, complete with the same template of over the top villains and an honest-to-a-fault patriotic protagonist. While Bollywood has faithfully followed this template for the next decade or so, Indian literature has forayed into the world of such thrillers only recently but has quickly followed up in the footsteps of the visual medium to deliver stylish and taut, if entirely implausible stories of armies and soldiers engaged in battle with almost melodramatic but invisible enemies.
S. Hussain Zaidi manages to steer his story clear of the comedic element of thrillers in his latest book, Eleventh Hour. His writing reflects his experience as a veteran journalist; it is trimmed down to perfection and maintains a pace that makes the book unputdownable. Usually the problem with any thriller is that either the plot gives away too much at an early stage, thus making the rest of the book clichéd, or it starts too slow and results in the reader losing patience. This book is delightfully balanced. The author drives the narrative at his own comfortable speed, giving us an insight into both the tragedies of the past and the obvious danger looming over the present. He also makes use of his knowledge of the places that he has chosen for his story, describing each location with precise details, whether it’s the streets and slums of Bombay or the luxurious confines of a hijacked cruise ship. At various points throughout the book, the reader has to pause and take in the accuracy of the plot, starting from the internal workings of various bureaucratic, anti-terrorism agencies to the murmuring world of Bombay’s underworld. The panic and paranoia of a post 26/11 city still reeling from the feelings of being held hostage by the unknown forces of terrorism are depicted in their visceral entirety and become the driving force behind the main narrative.
As with most thrillers of this genre, this book too suffers from the same problems that its predecessors have. Although the setup for the story is intriguing and is derived from true stories – the jailbreak and subsequent escape of five young men, the growing rumours about a hidden caché of weapons which threatens to wreak havoc on the city of Bombay, and the hijack of a cruise ship by Somalian pirates for hire – the story struggles but fails to get out of the box it has been cast in, the good versus evil dichotomy. The protagonist in particular, is the brooding, battle-ravaged intelligence officer straight from the vault of Bollywood’s masculine stereotype. The antagonist doesn’t fare any better; described as a dangerous terrorist who has successfully managed to evade capture through various acts of terrorism, he announces jihad for the purpose of demanding a unified Caliphate but eventually finds all his plans foiled solely by the efforts of the protagonist and his wise mentor. Most of the characters are one dimensional, fuelled by their singular motivations, and we aren’t given enough space to acquaint ourselves with the different sides of their personality. The women especially, have a couple of throwaway lines and mostly function just as the in-need-of-saving romantic interests of the various male characters. The climactic, action packed scene which involves a cruise ship, a helicopter, snipers, hand to hand combat and plenty of fired bullets (and would no doubt look good if adapted on the screen), strangely relies on a deus ex machina moment, which dilutes in some parts the catharsis expected from the slow and steady build up till that point.
Despite its shortcomings, Eleventh Hour should be read as a smart thriller, full of deftly handled cliff hangers and red herrings. In some respects, it also reminds the reader of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, with its exploration of Bombay’s underbelly and the intersection between the bureaucracy-cops-terrorists. This doesn’t come as a surprise considering the author himself has claimed it to be his favourite book.
A worthwhile weekend read with smart storytelling and pages full of thrills, the book shines as one that can bring a new flavour to the tried-and-tired existing spy franchises.
Nilesh Mondal is an engineer by choice and poet by chance. He is a writer for Terribly Tiny Tales and Thought Catalog, and has interned with Youth Ki Awaaz, Inklette and Moledro Magazine. His works have been published in magazines and journals like Cafe Dissensus, The Bombay Literary Review, Inklette, Coldnoon, Muse India, Eunoia Review and many more, and his first book of poetry, Degrees of Separation came out in 2017 and debuted at #2 on the Amazon Bestseller List.