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My Indian books phase continues. I just finished reading Prem Rao’s “It Can’t Be You,” for the book club. Termed as a psychological thriller, the book was a good read from start to finish. Here is a summary of the story:
When Colonel Belliappa, Indian Army (Retd), a highly decorated war hero is found dying one night frothing at the mouth in anguish, there is no one else at home. Other than his immediate family, his wife, his daughter and son. Did he, who killed so many, kill himself to bury something dreadful from his past? Or, was he killed?
It Can’t Be You is written around this incident, which takes place right at the beginning of the book. After the reader is taken through the shock and disbelief of the Colonel’s death, the book floats into the family’s past. Rao divides the book into various chapters dedicated to exploring the personality of each family member. Beginning with Belliappa himself, it goes on to his daughter Shefali, son Pritam and lastly his second wife Elena. They all speak in their own voices, each having their own thoughts. It is interesting to note that of all the primary people who are involved in the story, it is Dinaz who is not given a voice. She is seen only through Belliappa or Belli as he is known, a filtered shadow of what she might have been.
Without doubt, Belli’s is the most fascinating and gripping character. He is by turns charming and devilish, suave and evil. He has several dark shades to him, ranging from gray to a bottomless black, which nobody is able to decipher. One of his colleagues, Colonel Sinha, says,
“The trouble with people like you, Belli…is that you would like the war to go on forever. You revel in fighting every day.”
Indeed, if Belli is not fighting in a war, he is fighting his own demons. We discover that he is a jealous and possessive husband, a domineering father and a soldier who is twisted enough to mutilate several of his captives. On the contrary, poor Dinaz seems too good to be true. She puts up with all his mood swings and meaningless tantrums till the very end, only because he had “been seen by more doctors than anyone else,” all of whom continued to remain clueless about the cause of his suffering, going no further than attributing it to trauma from war.
Belli’s twists and turns keep us engrossed, while Pritam and Shefali add color with their own problems in life. Shefali started out as a strong personality who reminded me a little bit of the character of Hanna from the eponymous movie. But just as I thought she was a focused character, she got lost in the romance with Rashid. Or so it seemed. She has more substance to her than meets the eye and we discover it as we read along.
Pritam comes with all the insecurities, cocksureness and foibles of youth of his age. I can see a Pritam in the crowds of youngsters his age clustered around a hookah in a Café Coffee Day or the many “lounge” bars.
Quite a lot of psychological thinking has gone into Rao’s character sketches and it’s impressive. What didn’t curry favor with me are a few revelations towards the end, which was too action packed for my liking. I thought it could have doubled its shock value by being simpler. Also, at times there are too many repetitions of a fact that has been mentioned before. For instance, we read at least four or five times that Mukesh is Pritam’s closest friend and that they were together in boarding school.
Of course, these are not flaws enough to mask the enjoyment of the book. For a debutant, Rao’s work is commendable and he maintains an even pace that sustains our interest throughout. More than investigating the Colonel's death with the help of the police or detectives, Rao delves into the murky depths of the people around him to dig out motives, which is a different approach to a crime novel.
But it's Belli that stayed with me. I must confess I am most intrigued by him and almost attracted to him for the sheer force of his personality. If there is a modern Dr Jekyll and Hyde, it’s him.
Verdict: Entertaining and interesting