The book starts with a historic post-independence plot, where an infamous blood-leaking train from Sialkot reaches Amritsar carrying nothing but brutally butchered corpses. In the very next chapter we’re taken back in time to 250BC, where we have a post-Kalinga Emperor Ashoka trusting an important secret with one of his nine reliable men. Right there within the first ten pages is your interest captured in figuring out what secret Ashoka might have entrusted upon this man that is relevant even in the modern era.
Ashwin’s books have often been held culprit of good research work, and the case is the same with The Sialkot Saga that borrows a good amount from contemporary Indian history. While many key players of the then Indian National Congress and founder members of BJP have been named out and I was pretty indifferent reading through their discourse and dialogues, I was amused when a young Atal Bihari Vajpayee casually introduced himself to one of our protagonists. I haven’t read many local fictional works that directly introduce an important political figure like Vajpayee as a prominent side character, a move practised frequently by Jeffrey Archer. Techies might even enjoy the Steve Jobs cameo mentioned here.
Our two protagonists here – Arvind and Arbaaz – have sprouted from two different places in India and have grown up in almost opposite conditions – Arvind is born to an affluent family in Calcutta and Arbaaz is the son of a dockyard worker in Mumbai, but both have this thing in common: they’re both smart, are well aware of their strengths and weaknesses and are far-sighted. Both these characters share a single aim of minting more money, and though their methods vary, both employ tricks up their sleeves to earn money the wrong way. These two characters, and many other side characters in the book seem immensely inspired by the protagonists of Bollywood film – even the book reads like one. Arvind and Arbaaz even share political ambitions, and while the former joins BJP to fulfil his dream, the latter associates with INC to fulfil his agenda.
The narrative keeps shifting between the era of Ashoka-Samudragupta-Harsha and the time from 1947 to 2010, and the dots connected by the author between these two time periods reveal to us the wisdom and secrets that has been passed through centuries by one man to another. It’s towards the end that one learns the true importance of Sialkot in this whole plot, and also the connection framed between Arbaaz and Arvind was kind of strange in a way, though not distracting (Hint towards that connection is shared by author via Mahamrutyunjaya Mantra in many chapter introductions).
The Sialkot Saga manages to hold your attention throughout and is very much readable, and with the given storyline I won’t be surprised if it’s adapted into a movie.