A New Hero Is Born in A Truly Romantic Thriller
A Sharia London by Vinay Kolhatkar
As far as we can tell, Vinay Kolhatkar's new novel, A Sharia London, may take place in London today, or London next year, but the story it tells is unfolding all over Europe. Islamic jihadists, like terrorists everywhere and always, are targeting their moderate co-religionists who are publicly protesting Islam-as-murder, cooperating with police against the terrorists, or simply trying to break free of the religion of their birth. Destroying the moderates or terrorizing them into silence leaves only outsiders to oppose radical Islam and so drives all members of the religion together.
This characterization is of theoretical interest; its reality is horrifying. Several years ago, when Kolhatkar reportedly began to conceive the novel, its incidents on the street of London might have been dismissed as the acts of Islamic sociopaths. Since then, the ghastly spectacle in the world press of the rise and victories of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syrian (ISIS), takes care of that pleasant self-deception. When women in London begin to be raped and scorched with acid, blinded with acid and driven to suicide, and gunned down with their infants in their arms, we know it is the expression of an ideology of fanatical intolerance and venomous contempt for co-religionists of any sect but the jihadist's own.
Marlon Stone, like most of us, affirms religious tolerance. Unlike most of us, he teaches and preaches it as a college lecturer. After all, there are billions of Muslims in dozens of countries who lead peaceful lives among their fellow citizens. But Marlon misreads the jihadists as standing up for Islam against provocation and the protestors against Islam as stirring up trouble. This begins to change on the first day of class when a beautiful, independent-minded, outspoken, and notably sexy woman in her early twenties, a Muslim apostate, sweeps into his class. Her ideas about Islam challenge him immediately, but it is her dream in life--to live Sharia-free and help other women oppressed by Islam--that draws Marlon into battle against all-too-real bloody jihadists.
Marlon, and A Sharia London, reminded me immediately of a book and movie, Death Wish, that several decades ago became almost a household name and shook up forever liberal shibboleths about economically deprived, desperation-driven, tragic young knife-wielding muggers and rapists in New York City. The hero is a mild-mannered intellectual, a ACLU-lawyer type, who spends his day manufacturing excuses for "minority" criminals--until he comes home to his wife and daughter in an apartment that is a horror scene of rape, desecration, blood, and death. He gets a gun and stalks Central Park by night to seek a very different re-match with predators.
To contrast Death Wish with Sharia London is only to highlight the depth in which Marlon's psychological transformation is portrayed, the far greater credibility of his emergence as a commando battling to save the victims of Jihad, and the subtlety of his relationship with Muslims, who are both his chief foes and among his chief allies.
Yet, the protagonists of both novels are motivated by a moment of realization. They see people they love profoundly--as Marlon comes to love his heroic student, Jamila Khan--and know are unqualifiedly good, and truthful, and kind--threatened by an evil irredeemably blind to the good. Something clicks: Whatever cesspit of confusion or rage, hurt or hate, in the minds of the killers, the only response can be to protect what we love by answering force with force.
Kolhatkar's is a lean, evocative prose, focused on action; his remarkable talent is make that action speak for itself of the emotions and the values at stake. When his rhetoric goes beyond this, seeking a peak moment, it often is in describing the physical love between Marlon and Jamila and of Jamila's exuberant sense of life:
"He knew that he was past the point of no return. He took her breasts in his mouth, one at a time, shifting from left to right like a child in a candy shop unable to decide what to spend his penny on."
"She became aware of the imminence of the final stage of ecstatic agony only moments before it exploded. Quickly, she took a deep breath and ducked under the water. Her moan that would have been audible became a single forceful exhalation--the exhalation merged with the rising globules of warm air."
"Her loose hair fell across her face as her bent knees bobbed gently. She swayed with her eyes shut, not so perfectly in tune, but with a gay abandon born of this time and place. He had heard the phrase often enough--Dance like no one's watching--but never before had he seen it so well illuminated."
For Jamila, this is the emotional equivalent of her declaration of willingness to pay any price for life without Sharia, her rejection of the most profound premise of Islam about the meaning and value of life on earth.
If the love story's passion and eroticism go hurtling ahead in parallel with the rising violence and terrible stakes of the conflict, it is because love has turned Marlon into a dangerous man. The "technicalities" of this transformation, so to speak, await Marlon in his past as part of a Sicilian crime family--some now dead, some in prison, but some practicing the family trade in London and available with just the right "skills" when Marlon and Jamila desperately need them. In a fascinating detour, Marlon departs for the dry, rugged hills of his native land to acquire the skills and tools to more than match the jihadists.
A Sharia London elevates a great thriller into literary Romanticism, when, in parallel with Marlon's external journey, the novel unfolds his transformative internal journey. It is a journey that begins in psychological despair--the frozen grip of paralyzing anhedonia--and reaches by the end robust affirmation of life, love, and assertive action. His guru is his student, Jamila: "...it dawned on him that she was the teacher, and it was he who was the student. Always had been ... It was she who taught by doing--a masterclass in the art of living."
He arrives back in London just as the city is seized by jihadist violence on a scale we have seen in the London and Brussels massacres. Because Jamila cannot and will not stay out of the fight and watch women like herself murdered in spirit, and in fact, Marlon's crusade must go far beyond protection of the woman he loves.
A Sharia London from the outset presents the reader with scenes as good as any thriller can offer as Marlon fights the killer who bursts into his apartment to kill Jamila, who lies in Marlon's bed--or flees in a race of terrifying tension to evade the killer's partner.
Now, he will live to see the jihadists defeated as their campaign accelerates into an ISIS-like nightmare of child rape and murder. Marlon is a hardened operative combating the terrorists in London, but his determination to be as inescapable as a fatwa takes him to a final murderous struggle near a tomb off the shores of Mumbai in the Arabian Sea.
From the Author
Although it may seem like it sometimes, writers do not always write in a self-imposed vacuum,and most writers are delighted to receive constructive feedback.
I was most fortunate. I had, not one, but three alpha readers--readers who, not waiting for a completed composition, read along as I wrote. By their actions, they implied a confidence in not just my ability to finish, but to finish in good time and keep them interested over a bit by bit,stop-start journey that took, coincidentally, a full forty-two weeks from first words to the baby of the first manuscript.
Along the way, I got way more than continuity errors and typos picked on,and plot and character questions pointedly thrown at me. Way more. I received the much-needed nutrition for the writer's soul, hungry for sustenance due to the hours of seclusion,self-doubt, and writer's block that plague those who live in the labyrinth of their minds, trying to create a parallel universe that resembles this world in body but not in spirit.
And for that, I am indebted to you--Sally Jane Driscoll, Walter Donway, and Aruna Narayan--may the stars shine on your lives, and I promise to build up my fountainhead of emotional sustenance for giving should you ever need it.
The benefaction continued. Hawk-eye Sally Jane comprehensively copy edited the finished draft. Aruna bore into the story again, the way a private eye would. Rajesh Narvekar cast his eye over it. Cathy Wilson, an auto-didactic literary scholar, happily plunged into the manuscript as a beta reader, and her eagle-eye re-scanned the landscape for the smallest little worm you could find.
Now whatever worms that remain are entirely my fault.