The idea of the book is very contemporary, dealing with reproductive rights of poor Indian women and the guinea pigging of them by multinational (US) pharmaceutical firms in a race to get the next-best contraceptive for women. The book describes about the collateral paid by these women and how the heroine figures out what is going on and how to stop the bad guys. The heroine (Poorva) is very contemporary too, no blushing damsel she, given to sipping bubbly in the evening with the dad and not thinking twice before embarking on a sexual (though true love) relationship and hopping on a transcontinental flight to come to New York for the almost-denouement.
The good and bad guys are delineated quite early on, yet the author does succeed in making them somewhat complex. To get access to people and information in India is not easy. The author gets around this by making Poorva's father part of the pharmaceutical industry, able to provide 'connections'. The complexity and ambiguity of the heroine's feelings regarding the tribal women, who may have been unwilling volunteers for the contraceptive, rang true. The angst of the middle-class do-good Indian woman when confronted with her less empowered sisterhood. In this, I felt empathy for Poorva.
The explanation of the science of contraception and the latest advances in female contraceptives seemed a little ham-handed. Much like the exaggerated facial gestures in Bollywood movies, the `education' (question and answer sessions between Poorva and various doctors) was very obvious and tended to break the narrative. As did Poorva's experience with Americans or American-returned Indians. The author seemed a trifle defensive re: the puny but moral Indians against the giant but immoral Americans, resorting to media stereotypes.
I liked the (requisite) love-angle and the humor. Any girl worth her Mills and Boons will see the influence here. The fortuitous prince (no complications regarding different caste/religion AND a handsome doctor), the bond between the prince and Poorva's handicapped sister, etc. There is also the humor which only Indians can understand: allusions to the movie `Bobby', being astonished by the friendliness of Americans, Poorva's deprecating humor, the work atmosphere in the office. I also liked the portrayal of the close bonds between a girl and her family, the obvious love there and also the guilt.
There is homeliness (as in the `homely' girl so desired in matrimonial ads) about the novel, which is very charming. It seems a likely story (perhaps because of its Indianness) which can happen to you or me if we only imagined enough. One senses that this is a first-attempt of the author at writing novels. Hopefully by the second effort the author will make the choices for the heroine a little more complicated, not just with respect to other characters but also with respect to her own life. And that the `education' (requisite in all medical thrillers) would be a tad more seamless. And that if she chooses to have non-Indians as characters in her books, she might stray beyond the stereotypes.
The amateur detective in this case is a young woman journalist working for a Deccan-Herald-like paper in Bangalore. She has a sister with a genetic disease, so is particularly interested in health issues. There is a suitable love interest or two. The setting moves from various offices to social events to cybercafes to tribal villages to Goa to the US as she energetically follows the trail of suspicion. There are frequent descriptions of food, and I was inspired to take my family to eat idli-dosa after I finished the book :-)
People do tend to pour out the intimate details of their work with an astonishing lack of discretion, but without this few potboilers would get anywhere :-).
I'm repeating myself, but really, the technical details are excellently done. The physiology and molecular biology relating to the vaccine are accurate, and the hypothesis is realistic. At one point I was expecting a big-bad-multinational-biopiracy plot to take over the story, but the author pleasantly surprised me.
While recuperating in hospital from her injuries, Poorva overhears a conversation about an NRI doctor researching a possible breakthrough in contraceptive methods. Unfortunately one of the setbacks of developing this revolutionary vaccine has been a deformed foetus, and this possible hindrance to the new vaccine has been stolen from the lab. This is where the journalist, all set to write a feature about the traffic chaos in Bangalore changes her mind and becomes an investigative reporter, keen to solve the mystery of the disappearing foetus.
The reader follows Poorva on her single-minded quest to expose those who are suppressing certain truths for their own gain. When confronted with pertinent questions, the doctor and his secretive wife only give her as much information as they are willing to disclose to the press, arousing Poorva's curiosity even further. What she finds is that the tribal women who are being experimented on are in fact still getting pregnant and there is major scam just waiting for her to uncover.
Poorva is portrayed as a modern, confident and stubborn woman ready to manipulate her boss and cajole her father for favours to reach her goal. Along the way, she succumbs to the good-looking Dr Rohil Kamath, but even this romance does not detract her from her mission.
Nilekani relies on her own experience as a journalist to chase a good story. Her style of writing is fluid although her use of medical terminology can be too tedious at times.
The cover describes this book as a medical thriller. I would place it more in the mystery genre, as none of the characters Poorva wishes to expose can be considered sinister and Poorva herself does not show any signs of fear. There is also a light vein of humour running through the book, which reminds me of Eric Ambler's style. With that in mind, Nilekani should be able to reach a wide readership if she can continue with the same format, or perhaps base a few more novels around the egotistical Poorva Pandit. I would be sorry to see her cultivate a character so well only to have her disappear with a single book.
Book Description: Recovering in a Bangalore hospital from a road accident, Poorva Pandit, a journalist, overhears a bizarre story about a contraceptive vaccine research, unwanted pregnancies and a missing malformed foetus. In MR Hills near Bangalore, Anshul Hiremath, returned NRI and doctor, has set up a research centre to test the efficacy of his new vaccine for contraception. But word soon leaks out that some of the tribal women on whom the vaccine was being tested, have become pregnant, and one of them has delivered a deformed stillborn baby. Even more strangely, the foetus disappears from the lab and turns up mysteriously at an NGO camp nearby. Following the trail for a story to break out of her ennui, Poorva begins to uncover a chain of incredible links. She realizes that Anshul is just one of the players in this international game where scientists and researchers are playing for incredibly high stakes and will stop at nothing to be the first to produce the ultimate contraceptive. The story moves through Bangalore with its booming pharmaceutical industry, to the tribal settlements in MR Hills and, finally, to the rarefied world of medical research in New York. Drawing on the latest developments in the field of immuno-contraception as well as the imminent adherence of India to the GATT agreement and changing patent laws, Rohini Nilekaniís first novel is a nail-biting, unputdownable, racy thriller.
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