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Book review: The Curse Of Mohenjodaro

A fun, immersive read that proves commercial fiction can be intelligent

The novel’s historical thread is set in 3800 BC, predating the Mohenjodaro ruins by a millennium. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The novel’s historical thread is set in 3800 BC, predating the Mohenjodaro ruins by a millennium. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For the first few chapters of The Curse Of Mohenjodaro, I was looking in vain for the Maha Khan Phillips I knew from back in the day. From Beautiful From This Angle, to be precise, her 2010 debut novel set in contemporary Pakistan and built around three young women. Khan Phillips’ delicate touch and intuitive feel for satire were used effectively in the bleak coming-of-age tale that was Beautiful and I had been looking forward to her second coming (well, third, if one counts her young adult novel published before Beautiful).

Then, at some point, I ceased looking for the writer that I knew and let myself be swept up by Mohenjodaro. Not a difficult proposition at all, given the elements: an archaeological dig, 44 people who die in a mystery fire, an ancient civilization, a fanatical cult, a super-successful writer of teen horror, a blond assassin, a deep-pocket funder and, at the symbolic heart of it all, the heart of a goddess. Oh, and two timelines: the present-day narrative set in Santa Monica, London and Karachi and the historical thread set in 3800 BC, a millennium and a quarter before the tentative dating of the ruins of Mohenjodaro.

The Curse Of Mohenjodaro: By Maha Khan Phillips, Pan Macmillan, 441 pages, Rs399.

All these various threads and time zones produce a fine tension that ensures you keep turning the pages (and wondering, only occasionally and at the back of your mind, exactly how talented this writer is to be able to pull off such vastly different styles and subjects) as Mohenjodaro blends academia-puzzles like the trashy The Da Vinci Code and the superior The Rule Of Four with more generic components of thrillers as well as the upcoming Islamic terror genre. If that sounds like too much, never fear, for Khan Phillips wears her research lightly—but convincingly—and does not allow it to get in the way of the pace.

It all begins appropriately enough, at a university-backed excavation at Mohenjodaro, when young intern Layla apparently blows up the entire team. A video feed of the act makes its way to YouTube and her horrified half-sister Nadia watches Layla as she opens a box and pulls out something resembling a rock and holds it up to the sky—and then, after a gap, actually walks away from the site even as her colleagues burst into flames.

Nadia is certain Layla is alive and, like any big sister worth her name, she must rush to her rescue. However light she travels, though, her metaphorical baggage comes with her: a tortured childhood in the cult set up by her father, a hatred for her estranged grandmother, her own famous media-magnet name, a troubled relationship with alcohol and anxiety, and a deep distrust of men, even though that doesn’t save her from getting attacked in her own home. Somewhere along the way, she picks up Liam, Layla’s teammate from the expedition who was fortuitously away on the day of the incident and, together, they set forth for Mohenjodaro.

Or maybe three-gether is a better word, because with them is Jaya, who comes to Nadia in dreams from millennia ago, and who we come to know in chapters alternating with the sisters’ story. She lives not in Mohenjodaro but in Meluhha, a sophisticated civilization that worships the mother goddess Shakari. Khan Phillips describes these sections meticulously and her delight with this completely imaginary world is palpable: The clans, the corruption, the cruelty and the quest for power are living, breathing things, not so different, perhaps, from the reality experienced by Nadia generations later.

For, yes, Nadia and Jaya are family and theirs is the curse of Mohenjodaro (though, perhaps, logically, it should’ve been The Curse of Meluhha) which, as it turns out, is a case of mind over matter. The Curse calls for a willing suspension of disbelief but it doesn’t stretch credulity too far or allow questions to waylay the narrative. It is a fairly immersive, fun read, a good example of how commercial fiction can be intelligent too, without veering too much into territories of feminism or philosophy.

“Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else," said outgoing US president Barack Obama in a superb interview with The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani earlier this week. Sometimes, it helps if some place is some time else as well.

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