Book Review | Florid, lurid, turgid mountaineering fantasy
Deccan Chronicle.| Rachna Chhabria
Cover photo of 'The Forsaken Wilderness' by Vivaan Shah. (Photo by arrangement)
I am unable to slot The Forsaken Wilderness written by Vivaan Shah into any single category, as it straddles several genres — it has elements of speculative fiction, is written like a literary novel, has some characteristics of a thriller (albeit a bit slow one) and very slight traces of a dystopian fantasy.
The Forsaken Wilderness is the story of Barkat Singh Randhawa, a civil engineer by profession. He, along with Shera, (a local guide), accompany a mountaineer-professor Charan Prakash Chaturvedi, who runs the Himalayan Rock Climbing Adventure Institute of Mountaineering and Research, to the formidable remote peak of Ranibaug. This trek in the Garhwal range is supposed to be a remedy to halt the professor’s spiritual degeneration — it’s prescribed by a spiritual guru, Swaami-Shree Shree Guru Dev Atal-Anivaarya Natija (the name is quite a mouthful).
Though Ranibaug means the queen of gardens, the peak is nothing like a garden. Considered unscalable due to its steep vertical ascent, no one has ever reached the summit. Its location is an anomaly on the map. Though a topographical survey expedition team had embarked on a journey in the spring of 1971, it never returned.
As the three men, armed to the gills with trekking equipment and food, start the expedition, they encounter an unforgiving wilderness that tests every bit of their endurance. There are no navigable walkways or established routes. The entire ascent is a lesson in hardship; they meet nature at its wildest and harshest, see fauna that is indefinable, encounter a tree that is both a hero and a villain. A tree that grows at an alarming pace. Food becomes scarce; one by one they are separated, until Barkat is left alone.
He reaches a strange temple that makes him susceptible to hallucinations and enters the den of a weird cult which revels in the underground landscape of a mine. The cult members are humans who have defied age and time. There are wild creatures never seen before. It’s a world beyond the realms of the wildest human imagination.
As I waded deeper and deeper into the story, I thought that Swaami Atal-Anivaarya was a figment of the professor’s imagination, just to dupe Barkat into accompanying him on this trek. But the swami appeared in the later chapters, showcasing a maverick side. He actually came across as a more likeable character than the professor.
"One man’s magic is another age’s science," this quote by a character in the story ends up summing the essence of the novel.
Shah has undertaken a gargantuan task through this story and he completes this task using a language that leans heavily towards the florid side, with lengthy descriptions that at times borders on denseness slowing down the reading experience. In many places the reader has to wade through giant paragraphs brimming with images, but I guess with a topic like this it is par for the course.
It’s Shah’s clever plotting skills that make the book an eminently readable one. Every time the pace dips a bit, he introduces characters and crafts new situations like a magician pulls rabbits from a hat. He is definitely a writer to watch out for.
The Forsaken Wilderness
Simon & Schuster
pp. 258, Rs.449
Rachna Chhabria is a Bengaluru-based children's author and a freelance writer