Book Title: The Forsaken Wilderness
Author: Vivaan Shah
Man didn’t realise when his need to understand nature turned into a claim over nature, antagonising the very roots of our existence. There is still no stopping humans, but nature isn’t a plaything. It asserts itself. Over the last few years, Uttarakhand has emerged as a classic case of how nature reacts to the havoc that human intervention can wreak on it — flash floods, avalanches, landslides, and more recently, cracks in houses. Where does Vivaan Shah’s weird fiction ‘The Forsaken Wilderness’ fit in then? Set in the very Himalayan region, it becomes a reminder of the supremacy of nature which we still fail to fathom.
The narrator, civil engineer Barkat Singh Randhawa, a professor from a mountaineering institute and a local guide — three men who know the mountains well — set out to scale the hitherto unscaled Ranibaug peak at the behest of a spiritual guru as a pilgrimage to atone for the professor’s spiritual degeneration. The team that had last made a similar attempt, in 1971, never returned.
The ascent turns out to be nothing they had imagined. Indefinable fauna, pyramidal tombs, mysterious orb-like luminescence inhabiting the bottom of a mine, an underground cult, men and women who seemed to have defied all notions of age, and a tree that grew at an unprecedented pace. This tree isn’t like anything the narrator had ever seen — its grotesque deportment standing out. But the tree being a tree, the giver of life, is the one to save the narrator when he loses touch with his companions because of the tree itself.
At the heart of the novel are supernatural happenings, odd discoveries, unexplainable phenomenon, hallucinations and the human desire to understand it, but only to fail.
Son of actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak, the author is an actor himself with films such as ‘7 Khoon Maaf’, ‘Happy New Year’ and ‘A Suitable Boy’ to his credit. His previous literary pursuits include crime novels ‘Living Hell’ and ‘Midnight Freeway’ and a science fiction horror story, ‘Entombed’. He has also written a play, ‘Comedy of Horrors’, an adaptation of writing by Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce.
‘The Forsaken Wilderness’ is Shah’s ode to these masters of their genre. The mysterious and macabre tales of Poe, the weird surrealism of Bierce and HP Lovecraft, the seafaring novels of Herman Melville, the philosophical and psychological voyages of Joseph Conrad.
The dark imagery and vivid use of language owe it to these writers. His explanations of the supernatural are lavish and ambiguous. Shah says he likes to keep the words thick, but at times, the writing seems dense and verbose.
And yet, it is a fresh read, one that is rooted in Indian ethos, one that talks of our challenges, one that questions, shakes and affirms the beliefs of our people. Shah manages to evoke awe and fear of nature, somewhere making the book a lesson that must be lapped up before it is too late.