When it comes to tigers in India, we seem to be a united lot, at least on the surface. While no one in their right mind, in this age or time, would dream of openly declaring their passion for a good hunt, you never know what lurks beneath the surface, deep inside the heart of a person who proclaims to be passionate about conservation of wildlife in its natural surroundings. And this is how Abhimanyu Pratap Singh, the Maharaja of Baikunthpur comes across to Ram, our protagonist who has run into exceptional hard luck upon his return to India for his father’s last rites.
In the US, Ramachandra Prasad works for Zentigris, founded by the first generation entrepreneurs, the Raja brothers. He has recently been promised a “board-level position” at the company and the company is at the brink of partnering with a Chinese firm. Ram receives a call from Guruji, his father’s neighbour in India, informing him of his father’s rapidly failing health. He rushes to India and all hell breaks loose, not only for Ram, but also for his employers, the Raja brothers and Zentigris. Abhimanyu comes to Ram’s rescue when Ram finds himself without money, without luggage, and without his phone outside the airport. Abhimanyu’s generous help only proves to be a temporary respite from the terrible events that await Ram. He reaches his father’s home too late, only after the senior Prasad has passed away. Decades old preserved tiger skinned, owned by his father, lands him in jail as he is accused of killing Burree Maada, a tigress that has gone missing from Kanha Tiger Reserve. He sells his soul to the devil, namely Feroze Goenka, a friend of Abhimanyu, for his release and gets sucked deeper into the muck with supporters of tiger farm, tiger poachers, and traffickers of tiger parts. Stories of Sherry, a strong-willed journalist, and Gangavardhan, a righteous IFS officer, are also woven into the narrative.
On the whole, it is an intriguing tale of grey characters, many of whom are instantly relatable. Ram, charming and materialistic, shows all the failings and experiences all the dilemmas a man in his position is likely to face. Surrounded by grandeur, this once middle-class man is tempted and often gives in to his temptations. Abhimanyu, royal and powerful, though generous at surface, makes all roads bend in order to get what he has set his heart upon. Be it for making friends or for hunting a formidable tiger in the wild. Sherry, a talented journalist, manages to extract the juiciest stories from the most formidable people while working on her personal agenda of conservation of tigers in the wild. Though she manages to leave a mark on everyone she meets, she has a past that she is unable to come to terms with and a mystery she is unable to solve: Why can’t she sustain a long-term relationship? Gangavardhan, a brave man, ready to take risks for the right cause, probably the most likeable character in the book, has a tendency to foolhardiness that turns out to be his undoing at the end.
The end of the novel, and mind you I am not talking about the climax, is as real as life itself. Many questions are left unanswered, just as they are in life. Characters do not reach their logical conclusion, as we normally don’t. And all stories don’t have a definite end, as they normally don’t in life. The author has done a brilliant job of ensuring that “the end” is just that – an end. Not a completion, not a finish, but an end. The story that the author wanted to tell has come to an end but the other stories are free to go on, later, at their own pace. And you don’t really question this, because through the stark realism of the book, you have come to expect just that. In fact, any deliberate attempt on the part of the author to bring the stories to a logical conclusion would have done the book a grave injustice.
And on the periphery lurks the Royal Bengal Tiger, the pride of our nation. Throughout the book, you see the tiger trophies hanging on the wall, its skin being used as a yoga mat, and it being reduced to the stature of a pet in a tiger farm. It is only in the climax that the tiger pounces and claims the centre stage. Justice is served, at the hands of the king of the jungle, the true royalty, by nature itself. And strangely enough, this is the only part of the book, except another little point that I will come to in a second, that you can find fault with. I find the climax a little too contrived, too dramatic, and too hurried. It stands out like a sore thumb in the novel otherwise grounded in reality. Another tiny failing of the novel is the tendency of its characters, even the seasoned criminals, to give out sensitive information to anyone who is willing to lend an ear.
But apart from this, Scent of a Game is a fairly good debut novel. But it is not a light read in case you are looking for that. Be prepared to invest time when reading this layered, complicated narrative on the attitudes towards tiger conservation all over the world.