The Sialkot Saga is a story spanning multiple generations. It is truly a saga unraveling various historical events happening in the Indian subcontinent and how they affect the two protagonists of the story, Arvind Bagadia and Arbaaz Sheikh.
Although it is a linear story, there are small breaks as one is repeatedly taken to ancient India, India in the Middle Ages and then to modern India to create the context. There is an underlying theme the story tries to tell, which is revealed in the end, but until you have reached a particular point, the reader is confused what genre Ashwin Sanghi is trying to cater to.
Normally in order to write reviews I take notes while reading books these days but in order to write the review of The Sialkot Saga I missed taking notes but this is primarily because I never thought that I would write the review of this book. I didn’t even hope to complete it. I thought I would read it for a few days and then move on to another book, forget about writing a review. Once I started reading it, I literally couldn’t put it down (although as it normally happens with me, it took me a complete week of intermittent readings to complete it).
The Sialkot Saga is a big book. It begins with Emperor Ashoka having a conference with his wise men about the written script of wisdom that has the capacity to shape destinies of not just individuals but nations. That script is like a template and only those with a particular mental and physical capacity can inherit its ingredients.
The novel is divided in various sections and “books”. After knowing about this small incident involving Ashoka you’re taken to 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. A train leaves Sialkot, a province in Pakistan, and by the time it reaches Amritsar, all its passengers are massacred but, seemingly, one small kid, who is saved by a lower-ranked policeman, desperately trying to find survivors.
For a while, two stories go parallel: that of Arvind Bagadia whose father is an averagely-successful Mardwadi living in Calcutta, and of Arbaaz Sheikh, whose father is a dock worker in Bombay.
Whereas Arbaaz Sheikh grows in a hostile environment surrounded by bullies and ruffians, Arvind Bagadia, although lives a comfortable existence, is in a constant state of unrest because he sees his father being treated shabbily by the more affluent Marwadi community. Arvind wants to grow extremely rich.
Arbaaz Sheikh, while trying to fight his street battles, is pushed towards circumstances and individuals that introduce him to the underworld of Bombay.
Arvind has an uncanny ability to find opportunities to make money, and not just loose change, but tons of money. Arbaaz is courageous and can see an opportunity when he comes across it. By the time they are in their late teens their fathers are dead and they have made their names in the fields of business and crime.
The ways Arvind and Arbaaz make money are not very different. Arvind cons people by rightly predicting political and economic turn of events in the country and Arbaaz rises financially by directly becoming the left hand man of an underworld don who is like the Godfather, the sorts that helps people in distress and in return, expects to be helped by them when the time comes.
As I have written above, there is an underlying theme. In between you’re taken to the various periods. For example, in the beginning the story begins with Emperor Ashoka talking about this mysterious script and how it is to be passed on to the future generations. Then you have different kings and emperors like Krishnadev Raya, (in between many more) and Maharaja Ranjeet Singh some way or the other using the script to give shape to great acts of worship and human well-being.
The plot also moves parallel to the various happenings in the country since the independence. So you’re constantly told about when particular politicians become ministers, when particular parties come to power or lose power, when particular constitutional amendments are made, wars with China and Pakistan, the rise and fall of Indira Gandhi, the rise and fall of Atal Bihari Bajpayee, the Kashmir problem, the various floods and earthquakes in the country, criminals like Billa-Ranga, stockbrokers like Harshad Mehta, various terrorist attacks, and so on. If you have read The Midnight’s Children at least in this regard you will find a great similarity.
The story is not about a particular incident, as is the name of the novel, The Sialkot Saga, it is a saga. So these are two complete stories of two individuals, drawn towards each other in extremely hostile environments. They have a disliking for each other the moment their destinies bring them face-to-face. Till the end of the story, there is a conflict going on between them. From childhood they grow young and from their youth they grow old, but their rivalry never stops.
The Sialkot Saga is a mix of legends, mythological epics, the vast historical heritage of India, the modern history of the country, the underworld and the business world, culminating into the realms of the treatment of untreatable ailments, and eventually, immortality.
Reading The Sialkot Saga was a great experience although I was constantly being drawn to other books (which means I didn’t leave the book midway as a normally do when I come across a better book). I must confess that the book would have been better written. Considering the vast repository of knowledge Ashwin Sanghi has used, a better writing style would have definitely created a gem. Nonetheless, his comprehensive research makes up for the lack of the ability to come up with a fluent language. I’m very happy that I read this book and discovered Ashwin Sanghi. I am definitely going to read more of his books and if you ask me whether you should read The Sialkot Saga, it depends on your taste, but if you want to read a book for the sake of entertainment and a bit of intellectual stimulation, I definitely recommend it.