Book Review: The Last War

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Sandipan Deb’s debut  novel, The Last War surely is a page-turner. Having a corporate and journalistic background behind him, the writer could take his readers along with him at the same pace as he had written it. The book is divided into four books and this work of fiction goes and works against chronological time.  It opens on 1st July, 2007 , but travels back in years to 1955. Set in the backdrop of Mumbai underworld, it has re-cast the epic of The Mahabharata , into the mould of recent times.

Rustom Pestonjee is a business tycoon, head of the (then Bombay) mafia underworld, who looks and finds a successor for his empire, quite by chance in Yash Kuru ( Bhishma). Yash who had taken the vow of celibacy , gets the wives of his impotent stepbrothers impregnated to keep the generation of the Kuru clan alive. The wives give birth to blind Shankar (Dhritarashtra) and Shiv (Pandu). Shiv’s sons are three in number. They are Rishabh (Yudhisthir) , Vikram (Bheem) and Jeet (Arjun). Shankar’s five sons oust Shiv’s ones by scheming against them, in order to remove them from their rightful hold over the Pestonjee organization. Jahn (Draupadi) is married to Rishabh, who gambles in places like Las Vegas and gets implicated in match-fixing, but bears Jeet’s son. BK Acharya (Dronacharya) teaches the path of dharma to both cousins, but takes side with those of Shankar when the war over ownership of the Pestonjee organization ensues. That Jeet’s son is named Abhi, after Arjun’s son Abhimanyu is a deliberate coincidence. Karl Fernandes, son of Alicia and Addy Fernandes (chauffeur) is Karna in the story. After a gory battle and fight amongst titans of mafia-raj, the sons of Shiv win the ultimate test of survival and endurance, having killed almost everybody in the opposition, sometimes by righteous means, sometimes by deceit and trickery. At the end of the novel, Jahn takes over the charge of the entire Pestonjee organization.

“Beyond the apartments obsessed with ironing, the Arabian Sea shimmered dimly. In three hours, people would begin to get killed.”

The first few pages set the tone and pace of the book. The language of the gun, gold smuggling, heroin trading, gambling, bookies and match-fixing are themes which are integral to the main plot. The clash of the titan cousins–in-arms to gain supremacy over the underworld of Mumbai, leaves the reader, if not for anything else, gasping and panting for breath. Towards the end of the novel, Karl says,

“ Underworld? I have always admired that unknown man who coined that word , Mr. Jagtiani? We fight for the city of Mumbai, not for what is underneath it.”

We, the uninitiated, get a brief history of the origin and gradual prosperity of the city of Mumbai. It consisted of seven islands previously : Bombaim or Bom Bahia, Parel, Mazagaon, Mahim, Colaba , Worli and Old Woman’s Island or Little Colaba. King Charles II of England had received the seven islands as part of his dowry from the Portuguese king , when he had married the princess Catharine of Braganza.

The story also travels to Italy, to Rome and Naples ,where Jahn flees after Ranjit (Dusshashana) tries to pull her by her hair and attempts to rape her. The three brothers fight back for retributive justice.It was Rahul’s (Duryodhana) hunger for power and Ranjit’s avarice which led to the defeat and downfall of the sons of Shankar. The assassination of Abhi, Jeet’s son, inside a church in Matunga is the only sequence in the chain of events which remains in and moves the reader’s heart. One could hardly fathom the reason behind the use of gallons of expletives, almost in every page. Copious writers have written and attempted to recreate and recast the epic of Vyasa – The Mahabharata. But few have been successful. The efforts of the writer in this regard are commendable.

It offers a good read, provided it is a gift from someone. The book is not worth spending from one’s own coffers. The efforts of the writer is laudable . The setting of the war between opposing factions of the Mumbai mafia reminded the reader ,of course, of Mario Puzo’s . But therein the similarity ended. The Last War lacks the loftiness and linguistic brilliance of Mario Puzo’s work. The sudden shifts in time embedded in the main storyline, is not unique. It could have been, if the writer had been more cautious about the development of his characters. The character developments have not been in tandem with the time shifts in the book.

An epic internalized but not quite there.

Title: The Last War
Author: Sandipan Deb
Publisher: Pan MacMillian India
Pages: 589
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3 of 5
Reviewed for: Publisher

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