Certain patterns of behaviour crop up regularly in the course of human history. Attempts to channel supposed power over the unseen, or even religion, to secure unquestioned authority, enrich oneself and yet crave more influence — behaviour regularly seen down the ages — could have been a feature too of an enigmatic prehistoric civilisation near a majestic river which gives the South Asian subcontinent its name.
But though often delayed, also inevitable is an end, usually violent and sometimes from unexpected quarters, to such arbitrary and manipulative rule.
These two factors form the basis of Pakistani-British writer Maha Khan Phillips’ supremely-imaginative, high-octane and relentlessly-engrossing thriller, which, while providing a reason for the (so far) unexplained collapse of the apparently well-organised and thriving Indus Valley civilisation, shows how the struggles of (and over) the past can continue well into the present.
Her tale begins in the Sindh desert where an archaeological team, funded by a mysterious foundation, makes an important discovery at the legendary Mohenjodaro — the skeleton of a woman clutching a copper box with some disturbing etchings.
Layla, a young member of the team, finds herself strangely drawn towards this box and cannot restrain herself from opening it and taking the strange jagged red rock it contains into her hands. And while she has a strange vision or a sense of deja vu, her action has horrific consequences for all her teammates and others at the dig.
And when the video of the gruesome scene goes viral on the internet, it creates a furore across the world. The embattled Pakistani government has no option but to term the footage a fake and blame the Al Qaeda or IS, but some are not convinced of the reasons for the inexplicable disappearance of the team.
Especially, Layla’s older half-sister, Nadia Osbourne, living across the world. Galvanised into action over concern over the fate of her sister, with whom she has only connected a few years before, she drops everything and sets out in search.
But Nadia, who has overcome a traumatic childhood and substance abuse to become a successful author, has another connection too — regular dreams of a young woman in what seems to be the city, whose remains are found at Mohenjodaro, at the acme of its power and prosperity.
Running parallel with her quest is the story of this woman, Jaya, in the city we learn is called ‘Meluha’ in 3800 BC, her curious and tortured destiny, and quite a plausible reconstruction of life and society of this civilisation, about which we only have some tantalising snippets of information.
But as Nadia tries to get information about Layla and her life, she encounters roadblocks, murderous attacks and offers of help from certain quarters, even from those she had thought she had banished forever.
Is there a connection between Nadia’s dreams, Jaya’s life and the present? Is Layla even alive? And is the prime reason for Nadia’s traumatic past some way involved in what is happening, and to what purpose? We find answers in the course of this page-turner which come to a tense climax at Mohenjodaro itself where reason confronts blind faith, relationships confront revenge and a desperate battle for the past and future is fought.
This historical/conspiracy thriller is a major departure for the Karachi-born, financial journalist-turned-author, whose debut, “Beautiful from the Angle” (2010), initially seemed a chick-lit look at high-society Karachi before revealing itself as a masterful blend of politics, terrorism, social repression and media (manipulation), with an explosive finale when Benazir Bhutto returns, but she well holds her own in the genre.
While she manages to maintain suspense and pace till the climax, the ending, as far as the present is concerned, seems a little perfunctory. And then a few more local characters who are more than nameless extras would not have come amiss.
But Phillips, who terms Mohenjodaro the “most breathtaking place” she has ever visited, pays it a perfect tribute by anchoring it firmly in the subcontinent’s present, through the origin of her main characters. This, the issues cited above and a swipe both at some categories of cult and nationalist religion make it a most worthwhile read.