THERE are cult fiction novels that flourish because they capture a niche market. Whether it’s Fight Club, Watchmen or American Psycho, each cult fiction book relies on a system that the nerdy ones among us can tap into. A world of its own, to escape from this one. And cult fiction followers pride themselves on the relative obscurity of the work they revere. My favorite happens to be Lee Siegel’s Love in a Dead Language, a playful retelling of the Kama Sutra through the interpretive lenses of four different author-translators. A second favorite is now The Book of Destruction by Anand.
Anand’s book is a dual hit. It’s a cult fiction book about cults. And it hits because it’s not an easy read. I don’t recommend taking it to bed with you for a pre-sleep read. The Book of Destruction does not deal with the more mainstream and obvious cults: the freemasons and the illuminati. It focuses entirely on the relatively less known ones that may or may not be alive among us right now. The hashashin (source of the word ‘assassins’) and the thuggees are the focus of Anand’s fictional exposition.
The book is divided into three sections, each of which peaks well beyond the point of the murder. The narrator runs into a dying man, who was long ago a gardener at the construction site where the narrator was working. The gardener, Seshu, and the narrator struck up a friendship based on shared intellectual curiosity and took long walks together. And then Seshu disappeared suddenly, until he appears here, stretched out on a hospital gurney, 45 years later.
Seshu has to have a life-or-death operation, but spends the night before writing a long letter to the narrator. In this letter, he explains that he is part of the thuggee cult, and his mission in life was to kill the narrator by first befriending and then trapping him. The letter also reveals that the thuggee cult was never killed off by the English Captain Sleeman, as intended. Like the illuminati and the freemasons, once openly persecuted, the thuggees went into hiding for decades, even centuries. They resurface only now and then to claim their targets with their handkerchiefs. They kill for the sake of killing in the name of their goddess Kali. That Seshu did not kill the narrator, 45 years before writing the letter, is because he found a more suitable victim.
At this point it is pertinent to mention that though the book does give a history of the cult of thuggees, this background information is rudimentary. I felt encouraged to keep reading because of some discussions and research I have carried out with my father on this group, merely out of curiosity. The Book of Destruction states that the weapon of choice of thuggees is a handkerchief with which they choke their victims. Sometimes they also use a large coin in the handkerchief, to quicken the death by breaking the victims’ necks. Their sacrifice carries a sense of purpose, as they believe that they are offering up innocents to the goddess Kali, who would without these sacrifices unleash her wrath and destroy all of humankind.
Seshu, in his letter, removes any previous conception of the narrator that the British Raj eliminated the thuggee cult. And the narrator, in a cold sweat, passes from the first tale, “The Gardener” to the second, “The Hotelier and the Traveller”, believing firmly that there are thuggees among ordinary people — “among ministers, bureaucrats, doctors, architects, academicians, intellectuals, historians, writers, dancers, scientists, policemen, industrialists, traders, workers, saints and nomads, and how thuggee is equally sacred to all of them”.
“The Hotelier and the Traveller” is the strongest and most vivid of the three stories that make up this triptych novel. A bomb goes off at the Welcome Hotel, from which a guest named Hasan Ibn al Sabbah had called the narrator a few minutes before the blast. The narrator’s search for an understanding of this event leads him through paradoxes and puzzles. Hassan’s name does not appear to be on the register. The hotel’s staff are mostly alive, but none of the guests or the receptionist survived the bomb blast. And it seems as though the hotel’s owner, a man named Zainul Abideen, blew up the hotel himself.
Five months after that explosion, a paperboy drops a magazine through the open window of the taxi in which the narrator is travelling. The magazine contains a few hand-written pages addressed to the narrator, and he reads that and an article on assassins. Each is meant for the narrator to read, and both in conjunction form an explanation for the bomb that went off at the Welcome Hotel. That the narrator received the magazine by chance at a traffic light is the coincidence that cannot be attributed to chance. There is a secret group of people addressing him specifically, explaining their cults and their murders. Anand’s information on the assassins is much more overwhelming than what he shares about the thuggees. It is always fascinating to be reminded of the origin of the hashashin and their link with Islam.
The third section, “The Tailor”, is as fascinating as the other two, though it becomes more and more surreal. An expert tailor stitches clothes that nobody buys or wears. But one day the narrator sees the clothes dance out of the tailor’s workshop and adorn random strangers on the street. The same people are transformed, and begin to march through a gate into a garden where they take part in a ritual sacrifice. This description does not give away how bizarrely the story develops or ends.
Murder in The Book of Destruction is not a morally questionable act. It is an intellectually dissected chain of events with motives and consequences other than those accepted or supported by mainstream thinking. The logic of the murders, and the way they are supported by the rationalisation, make this book a superb cult fiction novel. It is also worth re-reading to glean the information once the story is digested. But not in bed, and not at night. The safest time to read this novel is at midday, when paranoia can be safely kept at bay.
The book reads extremely well for a novel that is translated from Malayalam into English. This and Benyamin’s Goat Days, among numerous other currently successful books, demonstrate how treasure in local languages is finding the right translators to carry them to a ravenous audience.
The Book of Destruction
Penguin Books, India
248pp. Indian Rs299