Honey Jaspreet Kumar’s arching libido is matched only by his veritable lack of charm and the void within. Midway through Hadal , CP Surendran’s third novel, the author nails the problem with his chief character — “Half the problems that people had were because, just like him, they were oversexed and under******.” The espionage in Hadal spirals out of Kumar’s unruly mind, one pulped by swigs of cough syrup.
Hadal ’s strength is Surendran’s poetry parading as prose. Its weakness is his plot. The novel never lets you forget that the author is also a poet. He chooses words carefully, lovingly, yet with such ease, that they sit in unfamiliar spaces without qualm and throw up lines that surprise. Miriam, the Maldivian woman on whom Kumar loses his moorings, sits alone in a colonial building, the Foreigner’s Registration Cell in Thiruvananthapuram, awaiting visa extension. “The silence was sunlit and perfect like a desert,” writes Surendran, the poet. He is at home in his milieu — Thiruvananthapuram and Delhi, and recreates with the same skill the frothy beaches and the calculating minds in Kerala’s capital as old Delhi’s dark alleys and darker secrets. The throbbing “velvet violence” of Kerala’s landscape is not missed on the author. But he also imbues the narrative with images that will draw a newcomer’s eye. So in the small shops lining the roads are “soda bottles with blue marbles in their necks and bright yellow lemons balanced on their mouths.”
The novel, however, does not live up to the promise of its prose. Or was it too good a promise to live up to? Hadal is inspired by a true story, one that had a generation of Malayalis hooked to a soap opera of espionage, defence secrets and honey trap in the 1990s. It falsely implicated senior space scientists and brought much disgrace to two Maldivian women. Surendran pitches the story in the present. Norway has deported the Menons for reprimanding their 12-year-old, who pisses in the school bus. The tsunami wave had “brought white fish leaping all over the roads in Male” and in return took away Miriam’s father, mother and sister.
Miriam arrives in Thiruvananthapuram to drift away from an insipid marriage and to write a novel. Kumar, a police officer and a living monument to the potent naming skills of the Malayali and the Punjabi, is shunted to Thiruvananthapuram for accepting bribe. Miriam wants Kumar to extend her visa and he needs that age-old favour in return. As Miriam touches base with Paul Roy, a playboy scientist whom she first met in Maldives, Kumar goes on a rampage. Unrequited lust and jealousy send him down a hazy path; he smells espionage in adultery and places Miriam and Roy at its centre.
Surendran’s love is reserved for words, his play tools, than the characters he builds with those words. So Hadal limps. ‘Hadal’ means the depths of an ocean beyond 6,000 metres. The author, though, does not invest much energy in plumbing the depths of his characters. Kumar remains the run-of-the-mill officer prone to mindless misdemeanour despite his heady backstory. With an activist Malayali father and feminist Punjabi mother, who is comically finished off midway her victory speech after climbing down a coconut tree, Kumar could have been much more than the cough-syrup gulping protagonist, stalked by a fear of falling coconuts and a sense of physical unattractiveness. The day his mother died, young Kumar had run endlessly on the shore, not knowing what else to do. When he comes back, she is already “soot and ashes well on their way to becoming diamonds.” Surendran loses that vulnerable boy there and never finds him again. Aloofness characterises Surendran’s Miriam despite her baggage of loss and unhappiness. Ram Mohan, Kumar’s boss, witness and partner to his misdeeds, is real, burdened by ambiguous sorrow. Anita, his wife, is on a subversive war with him. He texts her about arriving late from Thiruvananthapuram and instantly regrets it. Anita, he knows, will make sure he is welcomed to emptiness. And she does. Surendran’s small characters have promising stories and possibilities. But they remain that — minor. The Kerala chief minister, the wily Thomas Lawrence Pappan, is a study of a kind. Pappan laughs carefully, so as not to disturb his hair-do, a meticulous arrangement of strands curated by his wife, ill or well, every morning. She combs hair from around his head and places them in a neat mop in the middle. These snippet visions of real-life quirks give Hadal its pleasing parts.
Hadal picks up a feverish pace towards the climax. The narrative cracks up to be a Bollywood pot-boiler, topped with violent interrogation scenes. The author is in a hurry to seal the parts. And he opts the lazy way out — bumping off one, sending another on self-discovery and putting the third in coma. The frenzy leaves the reader, as it does Kumar, bleary and worn-out.