Room 602 somewhere in Philadelphia…12:05 am Eastern Time / 10:05 am India Standard Time
I sit in my studio apartment. The dogs snore loudly in their beds. The backlight on my Amazon Kindle glows a light blue. Within moments, she materializes. The Girl in Room 105. She’s mysterious and barely visible on the cover. I grab a screen shot of the color cover on my Apple iPhone X.
I go to Twitter. I want to tweet the image, but I decide to check the author’s profile first. That’s when I see it. The apology from two days earlier—and nothing else. I check the hashtag. Fans are already tweeting images and thoughts about the book.
But, from the writer, there’s nothing. Not even a retweet. Just silence hanging in the social media air. Silence from a guy who tweets an average of 5 times a day during launch is deafening. It is The Girl In Room 105’s book birthday. But where is the cake? I didn’t expect a 105-layer monstrosity, but not even a little cupcake of happiness?
What the actual duck?
Editor’s note: That’s not a typo. I have given up correcting autocorrect. Just go with it, K?
I narrow my eyes and growl. The writer is officially on my shit list. Chip also growls.
I open the book on my Kindle. I skip the first chapter (which I’ve already read) and begin Keshav’s story. Yes, Keshav’s story, not Zara’s. Zara, the girl in room 105, is just the object of Keshav’s lust. Nothing more. At least not yet. She remains a mystery.
I take an instant disliking to Keshav. He’s drunk, obnoxious, and obsessed with Zara. He exhibits every bit of the bad behavior that women have been hashtagging about for the last week. Basically, Keshav is a tharki asshat. His best friend Saurabh tries to talk sense into him—but fails.
This all feels a bit too real since I’ve been reading so many #metoo stories this week. I want to vomit. I text a friend. He talks me down off the virtual ledge I am on. I decide to go to bed.
In the morning, I take Chip to the groomer and decide to have breakfast at Dutch Eating Place in Reading Terminal Market. I sit down at the counter and order two eggs over medium with rye toast and scrapple. Plus coffee. I barely have time to open my Kindle when my meal arrives. The coffee is hot and strong. The egg yolks are not too hard, not too soft. The toast is a bit too buttery for my tastes, but it’s a diner, so I just go with the extra calories. I will walk them off later anyway by carrying a 10-lb poodle strapped to my back. What I am really here for is the scrapple, that unique Pennsylvania Dutch food made from leftover pig scraps that you either love or loathe. The scrapple has a crispy outer texture and soft, pate-like texture inside.
I settle in to read. I don’t like the initial scenes in the police station. They don’t feel realistic. Why is Rana so chummy with these dumb kids and letting them in on an investigation when they are the object of that same investigation? Rana gets even chummier when he learns Keshav’s dad is a senior member of the RSS. But, of course, dear reader, I already know that. I watched the trailer. Possibly more than once. OK. Definitely more than once. I see you judging me. But, you will judge me less harshly when you see Vikrant Massey. I’m just saying.
Anyway…back to the story.
The story is fine. As thrillers go, it isn’t as pacy or unputdownable as I would like. The hooks I expect from a seasoned thriller writer aren’t there. The characters talk way too much, and there isn’t enough action. I consider the possibility that the writer has tried to construct a thriller almost entirely of dialogue. I am not surprised. After all, the writer is India’s best-selling playwright pretending to be a novelist. I probably shouldn’t have told you that. But, it’s true. He even uses a the Greek deus ex machina to resolve the plot and break the story into 3 acts.
I pick Chip up from the groomer and head home on foot. I stop at City Hall and check my phone. It’s 10 am in Philly, but nearly 8 pm in Mumbai. Still no tweets from the writer. The book’s birthday has almost passed, and he isn’t going to say anything. Not a single ducking word.
Coward is the only word that comes to mind. Of course, I know better. I know that someone has probably advised the writer that silence is the best course. But, that someone is an idiot and clearly does not understand how marketing works. That someone also doesn’t understand what it means to have a book birthday. The joy mixed with relief and fear that every writer feels as they launch their little baby out into the world. That someone doesn’t understand the excitement that fans feel when we finally get to read the words we’ve been waiting 2 years to see. That someone is most likely a lawyer. Sigh.
I’ve been watching the marketing for this book for the last 2 months. This campaign has been the writer’s absolute best. I hoped that the shift to Amazon/Westland would mean more resources and better marketing spend, maybe even taking a few more risks. He has not disappointed me so far.
But, now, I am disappointed—and frustrated. I am already disappointed in his philandering behavior, and now I am disappointed in his response to the public mess that exposes private pain. I am disappointed with him—and for him. Today should be a happy one for him, and it isn’t. Maybe he deserves to feel that unhappiness, but his fans do not. We have given him so much—and he can’t even acknowledge that?
My frustration peaks. I decide to write an open letter. I don’t know whether he will see it or not. I don’t care. I put it out into the world and set the post to Public.
I continue along my journey and reach home. I read some more. The story is finally getting good. We learn the background about why Zara broke things off with Keshav, and it’s ugly. The story includes tensions in Zara’s home state of Kashmir, communalism, and, of course, a love marriage. The writer is at his best here. He’s on familiar ground. Two young lovers separated by fate—and by parents who just don’t understand. I really don’t know who I dislike more: Keshav’s dad or Zara’s. By now, I am warming up to Keshav. His tharki asshat ways are not seen here; they come later. As boyfriends go, he’s not too bad. He doesn’t hit her or abuse her. He’s even kind of cute the way he talks about wanting to cuddle with her after sex.
Most of all, though, I like Saurabh. He saves the book in its slower moments. I finally realize that this book is a desi Hardy Boys. Two young guys solving a heinous crime that the police have failed to solve—and eating phulkas and drinking kahwah. For no book by this writer would be complete without a carb obsession.
I go to bed having made progress but not having finished the book. At 2 am, Peanut wakes me. After all, a dog’s gotta go when a dog’s gotta go. We return, and I can’t sleep, so I check my phone. Because obviously checking my phone is going to fix that problem. It doesn’t. Instead, I see a letter to the writer’s fans and readers. I read it. Wow. That letter is something else. At least the marketing will resume now. I set my open letter post to Friends only.
When I wake up the next morning, I continue reading. About 3 pm, I get to the #metoo subplot involving Zara and her PHD advisor. I freeze. My mind reels as I realize that the writer with a magical trending machine in his brain has managed to release a book with a #metoo subplot the very ducking week that #metoo comes to India—and then managed to get caught in that controversy himself.
Many people think the whole episode is a publicity stunt for the book. I don’t. Maybe I am naïve, but if that were the case, why hasn’t he mentioned that part of the story in interviews? Why would he cause his family so much pain just to publicize his book? Is he really that cruel? I don’t think so. He’s an opportunist and not above deploying his trolls to market his book. But to cause those closest to him such public pain feels wrong.
I continue reading. The plot takes me back to Pahalgam in Kashmir and moves into the crime-solving phase. I get nostalgic and whip out my kahwah instant tea mix. Damn this writer and his foodie ways. Eventually, the story wraps up when all the suspects are called to dinner. Because of course they are. The writer does love to eat, and the dinner gathering revelation is an old crime novel trope. I won’t tell you whodunit, but I will say that although not a total surprise (the murderer was on my suspect list), the denouement and revelation work well. I was also relieved by the killer’s identity, although I can’t tell you why. Sorry. You just gotta read the damn book yourself to understand that statement.
If you read this review thinking I was going to trash the writer, I am sorry to disappoint you. I remain a fan. Judge me for that, if you will. I’ve been down that road many times. It’s just got a few more bends in it now.
I get a text message that the paperback version has arrived. I see the locker code is 500015. Please excuse me. I don’t want to keep Zara waiting.