Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Johnny gone down - book review

It was a long hiatus since I have written anything for my blog. So why not a little about a little book called “Johnny gone down” by Indian-English writer Karan Bajaj. The previous “Indish” writer I read was Chetan Bhagat (One night at call centre) and liked the book just for its lucid style and simple plot. Well, this one was entirely different with a complex plot. The story takes place in many countries starting from America, then to Cambodia, Brazil, back to America and finally settling in India. The protagonist dons various roles of an MIT graduate, a Buddhist monk, accountant of a local goon/mafia don, software wizard and eventually a loving father/husband. The journey is tumultuous, thrilling and racy. The author didn’t give over emphasis on the geographical descriptions which I liked, as the novel is not a travelogue. He successfully narrates the story with all the necessary details as the “Brazilian favela”, “Buddhist monastery” and the “corporate world”. Obviously the author is interested in philosophy as the book is replete with Buddhist doctrines (another turn-on for me) and dwells upon the impermanence of life in general. The protagonist is not at all interested in money and almost anything mundane other than love, which I found quite amusing. Is it possible to be such a man impervious to pain, emotions, money, fame and virtually everything human. He touches the lives of everyone he meets, but never demands anything from the people around him (unbelievable so). Besides he is so dark and so angelic at the same time which I could not comprehend. I know that we all have shades of grey, but a person who knowingly chooses a difficult path is beyond my logic.

I am going to give some spoilers here, but not all.  The synopsis is as follows; the protagonist is an extremely intelligent man (no wonder he got to MIT), with enormous physical prowess (he survived genocide) and later a broke insomniac who don’t care for anything. A harmless vacation to Cambodia along with his bosom friend turns into a disaster where he got entangled in the Cambodian bloodshed revolution of “Khmer Rouge” instigated by the greatest of Asian dictators, Pol Pot. He somehow survives it (many unbelievable elements are there in the Cambodian episode though) and ends up in a Buddhist monastery at Thailand, deep meditation follows for years. Despite the meditation, his mind continues to be restless and haunted by the past experiences (in fact he is haunted by past experiences almost until the end which not over-the-board, considering the degree of traumatic experiences he had gone through in Cambodia). He then helps his Buddhist guru to set an off-shoot of their monastery in Brazil where he meets a beautiful Brazilian model during the air travel and instantaneously feels an attraction for her. Well, it ends there but her image gets imprinted in his mind which we will read in later chapters. He gets more and more restless at Brazil and finally he gets out of the monastery with all the support from his guru who had already understood his inner struggles. Accidentally, he then joins a local ‘favella’ as an accountant, succumbs to the Brazilian underworld life abound in sex and violence, helps the ‘donos’ (name for Brazilian underworld don) gain significant amount of money and he achieves nothing other than his own contentment in helping others. During this time he marries the prior mentioned Brazilian model and embarks on a successful married life. On the eve of the arrival of his bundle of joy, he was forced to get out of Brazil as the Columbian drug mafia puts a price on his head. He migrates to America and befriends a broke software developer who also happens to be an MIT graduate. He wittingly and painstakingly helps him in fulfilling his ideas; in fact he develops a website (a virtual reality chat site) with the aim to rekindle with his own wife and son thousands of kilometers away in Brazil and finally gets addicted to the game he developed. His addiction proved lethal as he avoided food and started obsessively searching for his wife. One would wonder about the existence of telephone and email, but protagonist cannot use the traditional systems of communication due to the fear of tracking by the dreaded Columbian drug cartels. He then gets emaciated and weak due to his addiction and finally ends up in hospital. Out of regret, he escapes again leaving all the fruits of his work to his protector and heads to India for a duel where one person gets shoot to death for the amusement of the viewers. Yes, a game of death. Many stories unveil after that which you can read from the book.  Don’t worry, it is not a black story at all, the end all is all well and his ultimate realization of truth comes. More like an enlightenment. He finally finds happiness and peace. The plot was racy and a little complex but the characters are well structured.

The story is all about the “Faustian journey” of an ordinary man, impermanence of almost everything in life and his ultimate self realization. There are many beautiful passages in the book some of which I would like to present here. Try this one out: Our protagonist is traveling to India via train and he meets two random strangers, the conversation moves out in the direction of one’s choice to go abroad or stay in India.

The deer wandered restlessly from forest to forest, searching for the divine fragrance, not knowing that the musk rest in his own belly

More such philosophical quotes are there which I found extremely impressive for a man of such young age as that of Karan Bajaj. In author's personal website it is clearly mentioned that he is a "thriving yogi". So no wonder.  Another quote from a random stranger,

Jesus always creates a pattern. When you are close you only you see unraveled threads, but with time and distance, it reveals itself as a mosaic. Just wait and watch. Everything was meant to be exactly the way it is”. Such quotes are really liberating.

Try this wonderful conversation between protagonist’s wife and him about him being overprotective to his son due to his unreasonable fear of an impending attack from the drug cartels on his family.

Did I tell you about the misguided botanist mentioned in the book I am reading? The gentle botanist saw a butterfly struggling in her cocoon and felt so bad that he pulled her out so she wouldn’t have to suffer. Of course she shriveled up and died instead. The botanist didn’t realize that struggling in the cocoon, fighting and stretching, is what makes the ugly fat moth a butterfly. Like the botanist, you want to make sure he doesn’t suffer, but you will end up smothering him instead. You don’t realize that your struggles were essential to make you what you are. You can’t deny him his own”.

The protagonist amasses lot of money in his various avatars, but losses everything he makes, every time, but he is not wary of that loss of money which is hard to digest. But that is where his Buddhist upbringing comes to play. He is a monk in all respects even though he out rightly falls for temptations in many occasions. He had survived unspeakable savagery, but had not lost the belief in humanity simply because of the enormous kindness offered by random strangers he met during the various facades of his life. Yes, the random acts of kindness and their enormous impact on human life - for both the giver and the taker.

Protagonist had all the resources for leading a comfortable corporate life, but he chooses a different path. Chance and destiny played their parts, but mostly it was his decision. He had choices; a reckless life that knows no boundaries or a comfortable restricted life. He chose the former. He had regrets on all the decisions he made, he had nightmares and sleepless nights, his soul wandered aimlessly, until he realizes the truth/his "own self" at the end.

See this introspection of the protagonist while attending an alumni meeting of Indian MIT graduates, “I was turning my son into them by denying him the very things that made life worth living – friendship and loyalty, openness and vulnerability, love and loss, complexities and contradictions, falling, picking up the pieces, rising and falling again, a world that has no boundaries, a life that knows no limits”.

There are many things unbelievable in this book, many incongruous and anachronistic elements are also there. Definitely Karan Bajaj needs to do some more research before writing his next book. But his language is fairly good and the writing is quite lucid. The plot resembles a Bollywood film and the protagonist is too hard to believe as I said before. He is not that human. I would not have felt surprised if he was Jesus or any other heavenly creature. It would have been more believable if the protagonist showed a bit more vulnerability and sensitivity and above all he should have expressed the basic human emotions.

This book will make you see life in a different perspective. The book is all about a personal journey which we all will feel, at one point of time in our life. In that way, it touches every one of us. Johnny gone down is not an outstanding work, but it is readable because of the excellent writing and perspectives, even though the plot is quite filmy and unbelievable.  My verdict:  "a decent read".