It’s a tough time for new authors. There’s always inevitable comparison with India’s favourite (controversy-ridden) ‘youth icon’ author. Every young author, fresh-out-of-college, publishing his first book, tends to bear the brunt of this obnoxious comparison, not to mention being shunned by a discerning lot of ‘intellectual’ readers with a ‘mediocre’ tag.
Neeraj Chhibba seems to be the right scapegoat for such comparison. He shares Mr. Youth Icon’s (YI, for further reference) publisher, his primal book costs exactly the same as YI’s books (Rs. 95!), and to make things worse, the colour schemes of his book oddly resembles that of YI’s first, even though Sonali Lal did a better job than YI’s garrish in-house designer.
However, I summarily choose to desist from any such comparison. Having read his first book “Zero Percentile: Missed IIT, Kissed Russia” twice thrice, I strongly felt that Mr. Chhibba deserves an independent, clinical analysis. Which is a convoluted way of putting it across that I LOVED his book, if you didn’t get me. 🙂
The plot’s not too far-fetched, and yes, it’s autobiographical. The story revolves around Pankaj, a brilliant, young,Delhi-ite who is part-quizzer, part-enterpreneur and full-IIT-aspirant, even in his teenage. Fate plays spoilsport with his life, and a terrible accident deprives him the opportunity of giving his IIT exams. But a scholarship to study engineering at Volgograd, Russia, comes as saving grace. With not many options in sight, he boards his Russia-flight, and spends seven and a half eventful years in Russia. Meanwhile, he loses his virginity (after quite an effort which results in a close friend getting afflicted with AIDS), becomes a millionaire (in deeply-undervalued Russian Roubles, nonetheless! :P) and gets to enjoy his vodka. 😀 He undergoes a plethora of obstacles, from a day-long fling in a Russian jail to bartering a mexican standoff with the Russian Mafia, and learns a lot about life, only to succumb to love towards the end of the plot.
The best attribute of Zero Percentile is its fast-paced narrative. This is a book you WILL finish in a sitting and it won’t take you more than five hours at a stretch. Each page has something compelling to offer, with new nuances to the plot being accrued on-the-fly. There’s an endearing quality to the book – there’s something about the characterisation, that’ll help you relate to some of the characters, especially the protagonist. The chapters on Pankaj’s early days in India – the Delhi life, school days, et al. are quite charming. The transition from charming India to dark and grimy Russia has been laid out smoothly. So are the insights into the country of Russia. Neeraj plays carefully with the narrative to ensure that erudite messages describing the state-of-affairs of the then-beleaguered nation aren’t tiring. By the time you finish reading the book, you’d be prescient enough to lecture a few class 6 students on the country. 😀
The book has enough for the seasoned voyeur – there are enough descriptions of Pankaj’s and his friends’ flings with Russian beauties to quench your thirst! 😛 Having said that, a sixth standard kid who might chance upon the book might flinch quite frequently – yes, this book is for adults (not necessarily above the age of 18). Chhibba knows to play with emotions too. There’s the right mix of pain, awe, anger, happiness, and a whole gamut of literary emoticons. They’re subtle enough, and touch your psyche – evidently, Chhibba has written every word from his heart. Every word of this book, I felt, was candid. Kudos to Neeraj for baring open his heart with such perfection.
Nevertheless, the book has its share of flaws.
It all begins with the title. Percentiles never come into play when it comes to IIT-JEE. It’s been ranks all the way, for JEE. When I first heard about the book, despite noticing the ‘IIT’ subtitle, I thought it might have to do something with the CAT (Common Admission Test) – ’cause that’s one exam which gives out percentiles. The author mentions his ‘zero percentile score’ in IIT JEE repeatedly throughout the book, but I don’t get the logic. Alright, technically, he has a zero percentile, but couldn’t he have resorted to a rank nomenclature for the book? Just a suggestion. I mean, the name’s always the creative freedom of the author, and being a (lousy) critic, I’ve no right to play with creative freedom! My point is, the name serves the book right, minus techncialities.
The story, even with all its nuances, is not very ‘out-of-the-world’ as the title might suggest – but Chhibba’s narrative holds the threads together. The narrative might be fast-paced, but it’s complicated, most of the time. “Complicated as in, Salman Rushdie-style?”, you ask. No. It’s just that some portions in the narrative lack clarity. They’re a tad too convoluted – there’s some beating around the bush at places, which could’ve been avoided. While trying to carve out a humorous situation, Neeraj meanders from the topic a bit, and the end results aren’t very sweet. Yet, you’d get the hang of it and you’d be grinning, but the complexity could certainly have been avoided. (I couldn’t help but feel pangs of Deja Vu at such instances, because resorting to unintelligible complication is a facet of my writing style too, and I am doing my best to correct it. :P) Plus, the proof reading department at Rupa hasn’t done its job well. I noticed at least a couple of spelling mistakes and grammatical altercations. And of course, the climax is a tad too predictable – so is the plot of the book. Chhibba doesn’t have a way with suspense, and keeps giving hints regarding the fate of the protagonist(s) throughout. So you keep guessing as you read, and 90% of the time, it’s spot on. 🙂
Agreed, there are flaws, but as you can see, a lion’s share of them are too trivial even to notice. The book is endearing, and by the time you finish reading it in one sitting, you’d smile. It’s a feel-good book, despite the not-exactly-happy-happy climax. Read ‘Zero Percentile’, when you’re down with depression and trust me, by the time you’re done, you’d thank me for reading it. And no, this one’s not a one-read-wonder – you’d want to read it again and again. And with each time, your predilection for Pankaj and his cronies would only increase exponentially.
I’m STRONGLY RECOMMENDING Zero Percentile. Go down to your bookstore, spend Ninety Five rupees. This one’s for your library.
Btw, YI, beware! Your days are numbered!! *evil grin*. 😉