It is often said that an author’s debut novel is always semi-autobiographical in nature. To that extent, we may safely deduce at least one fact about Jvalant Nalin Sampat after reading The Tenth Unknown. He was the bright-eyed student who sat on the first bench in every History class while his friends stared at the ceiling with glazed eyes! Historical thrillers, with their mix of fact and fiction, have held readers captive for years but the genre is largely unexplored in India. However, Sampat’s ‘The Tenth Unknown’ can be called India’s answer to The Da Vinci Code.
The novel begins in March 1939, a few months before the start of World War II. The narrative is weaved on the same lines as Talbot Mundy’s 1923 novel The Nine Unknown. Folklore suggests that The Nine Unknowns are a two millennia-old fictional secret society founded by King Asoka to preserve and improve on nine books of secret knowledge. Each of the books deals with a different branch of potentially hazardous knowledge, spanning subjects from psychological warfare to cosmology. These books are hidden in clandestine locations in different parts of the world. The fast-paced, high-octane thriller depicts how the first of these is acquired by German archaeologists during the British Raj in India, knowledge of which goes on to become the backbone of Adolf Hitler’s success. The ensuing race of the Germans to get their hands on the remaining eight, the British attempts to thwart their efforts coupled with the Nine Unknowns desperately trying to protect these books makes for a brilliant read.
The characters in this book are meticulously constructed, with just the right shades of grey to make them relatable to readers. The world of Prithvi Rathore, the elite arrogant Anglicized Indian is turned upside down when his grandfather, one of the Nine Unknowns, assigns him to protect the books from the Nazis. Dismissive of the Indian nationalist movement, one sees a change in Prithvi’s heart once he is refused entry at the Madras Gymkhana on account of his skin color. He scours the world with valor in his search for the all-powerful literature. On the other hand, Joseph Heidler, reluctant member of the Nazi party, who is assigned to hunt down the remaining books, makes for a superb antagonist.
The one thing that jumps out as one flips the pages of this book is the painstaking research that has gone into making this book a delectable mix of intrigue and action. Travelling from the ruins of Nalanda University to the mystic Angkor Wat, the locations too have been depicted with great precision. The author’s natural flair for the English language places the book on a pedestal that not many Indian authors find generally place on.
The book jumps from conversations in one country to the conspiracies of the other swiftly, which might make it a tough read for some. However, this book delivers on quality of prose, astonishing obscurities and insightful characterization. It’s a must-read and would make a great companion for a solitary train journey.
We give The Tenth Unknown a 4 on 5.
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