The Hidden Hindu Book 1 – Review
I am a firm believer in the credo of “Lift up the things you love and stay silent on the ones you don’t.” But when you comes across something like “The Hidden Hindu”, one is forced to make an exception. I very much hate the fact that the first two reviews on my website have turned out this way, and I might be gaining a reputation for being a sadistic, harsh critic, but I also find it disingenuous to not be honest about how I have felt about a piece of art. What gives me some consolation is that even now, the things I have enjoyed far outnumber those I have not.
In the current media landscape, every major company is interested in Intellectual Property, those elusive bolts of lightening in a bottle that can be trusted to fund other projects by the dependable source of revenue they bring in. The Publishing industry is not any different. In the Indian scene, many publishers have found their marquee properties. Westland, and now Harper Collins has Amish Tripathi’s Shiva and Rama series. To make matters worse Harper also has Ashvin Sanghi’s books on their catalogue now. These two writers put together possibly outsell majority of the industry combined. Now Penguin does have romance writers like Durjoy Dutta and Ravinder Singh on its catalogue, but they don’t have a marquee fantasy series. So, in order to find their own franchise, Penguin has turned to Akshat Gupta’s Hidden Hindu trilogy. And boy that didn’t go as expected!
Now if you are anything like me, and walk into a bookstore when you see one, it’s impossible that you have not seen shelves stacked with this book. Penguin has pushed this book hard! So after nearly a year of seeing this book in stores, I finally broke down and bought a copy (I have the entire trilogy but I will talk about Books 2 and 3 in another essay. I am willing to give it a chance and maybe the subsequent books will change my mind). Now, I have often mistrusted Indian authors writing Fantasy. I feel there is an inherent tension between the genre and the way books are published in India. In India, books pushing 80,000 words are frowned upon. Fantasy, inherently, is a verbose genre. Because of this, Indian writing in Fantasy has often suffered as even capable writers are not afforded the real estate they need to build a believable world. So when I picked up Akshat Gupta’s Hidden Hindu, I did not have very high hopes. And I was still let down.
First things first, calling the writing mediocre would be doing it favours. I was reading the book with a pen in my hand, underlining the entire time and after a while I specifically wrote a note saying “This is the author’s tone. Deal with it.” The book depends ENTIRELY on telling you things instead of showing you anything. Character’s personalities are described instead of allowed to come through naturally through actions or dialogue. The descriptions, when done are very unimaginative and don’t give you a sense of anything. Not the layout of the location, not the scale of the events happening. There are so many character inconsistencies it wasn’t even frustrating after a while, it was just sad. Characters who had to call their mothers to confirm the identity of a man, later describe their entire history complete with dates. Whoever edited this thing (if it ever saw the face of an editor, I found the word “sneaked” used in the book once), does not deserve an appraisal this year. My favorite felony was “Shahista held her head in her hands, signifying strain.” As opposed to what? Lust?
Now, I will give credit where it is due. The cover is pretty cool. The second half picks up a bit. There is an actual plot once you survive the first hundred pages. However, the first hundred pages are the same scenes playing in a loop. A character claims something, everyone goes “How is that possible?”, then someone goes on a monologue explaining why it is impossible. Rinse. Repeat. It felt like reading a Dan Brown novel without the smart research and intelligent mixing of fact and fiction. Gupta is very insistent that mythology is historical fact, but does not look beyond Whatsapp forwards to make his case. I am waiting with bated breath for UNESCO to declare the book the Best Book in the World.
Reading the book makes one think whether this is what the creators and sellers of art think of their target audience. That we will lap up any substandard, lazily written story as long as it is clumsily wrapped up in Mythology. Reading the book and then looking for reviews of it online, I went into a bit of a existential crisis myself, as there wasn’t a single word of critique about the book online. I wondered if I have lost it completely. And then I read one page of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, that I had bought the same day and went “Yeah, no. Hidden Hindu just had terrible writing.” In this age of PR polishing every turd to make it look like Gold, one wonders how many better books were sacrificed so thousands of copies of this tripe could be published. I even wonder how much of the push bestowed upon this book was because of the quality and how much because Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s name was associated with it and that there is a web series planned based on it (don’t hold your breath. It was announced in 2020. Haven’t been any updates since).
So, what is the verdict here? Hard pass. Go read something else. I am not even asking you to read authors from other countries. It would be an insult to mention Riordan in the same sentence as Hidden Hindu. Anand Neelkantan maybe. Asura, despite still being the area of mythological retelling, is a far superior book. Hell, if you insist on reading Fantasy, read Devkinandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta. The fantasy book from 1870s is head and shoulders above whatever this whole thing was.
Great. Just two more of these to wade through. Things I do for the love of art.