The story starts with a gruesome triple homicide in a suburb of Mumbai which keeps the Mumbai police force guessing as to the identity of the killer.
When an author combines the genre of fantasy and thriller in one book, it’s a double bonanza for people like me who devour both these genres. The cover of Beast by Krishna Udayasankar is intriguing, and its open to interpretation and the title in red is symbolic of the theme of the book. The story starts with a gruesome triple homicide in a suburb of Mumbai which keeps the Mumbai police force guessing as to the identity of the killer. Is it a man or a beast? Because the bodies have been so badly mutilated that no human hand could have done it.
Assistant commissioner of police Aditi Kashyap handling the case is unknowingly dragged into the menacing world of Saimhas or werelions, who have been living alongside humans, hiding their real identity from the world from time immemorial. Into this scenario enters Prithvi, an enforcer, who has been summoned to hunt down this creature/murderer. Prithvi, as the story reveals, comes with his own cupboard full of skeletons, carrying the heavy weight of his dark and troubled past.
As the threads of the story unravel, so does a conspiracy. Aditi and Prithvi are constantly thrown together while chasing the murderer through the seedy underbelly of Mumbai, from dance bars and brothels to ancient underground tunnels, meeting all kinds of characters in the process. Through the story, Udayasankar introduces the world of Saimhas to the readers. Saimhas possess inhuman strength, they heal fast, can withstand tremendous pain, have sharp senses and an ability to transform from their human bodies into lions and lionesses.
One of my favourite portions of the book was the modern school section, where these newly discovered Saimhas studied under the sharp eye of Dr Acharya. It’s here that many of my questions were answered by the teachers. The Saimhas, calling themselves descendants of Narasimha, the part-man, part-lion avatar of Lord Vishnu, who killed the demon king Hiranyakashipu, born from the power of Vishnu, the Saimhas consider themselves soldiers of the gods — they are meant to protect all that is good and pure in humans. When the world comes to an end and Vishnu rises again to destroy all evil, the Saimhas will serve him. Till then they must control the beast hiding inside them. Forbidden to even call themselves Saimhas, these guardians of a terrible secret live as humans, that is, most of them, though many have succumbed to their beastly side. To use a scientific term, these Saimhas called themselves theriantropes, possessing a double recessive gene that can skip generations. They are governed by the council, a small group of community leaders who lay down the rules and take the decisions affecting these people.
The Saimhas were forbidden to ever take their leonine forms, taking an oath the moment they reach adulthood, that they will resist nature’s first pull to transform and resolve to live as humans throughout their lives. Though Udayasankar has a deft hand and holds the reins of the story tightly, I personally felt a couple of questions hovering in the readers’ minds could have been answered. But that was the way the story unfurled, leaving a couple of petals closed. I liked the way she has woven the characters’ backstories into the narrative, blending it so beautifully, that it reads smooth, like silk. The scenes where these humans transform themselves into Saimhas are breathtaking, so rich in imagery that I could visualise the lion, his paws, his mane, his eyes, his padded tread. I know it sounds weird but I really liked the way the fight scenes have been written, though gory, they require a second read as one reading doesn’t do these scenes justice. I liked Aditi and Prithvi, their scenes crackling with chemistry and wit, were breezy. Honestly, after ages I enjoyed a book and read it in one big gulp. I am now looking forward to reading Udayasankar’s earlier books.
Rachna Chhabria is a Bengaluru based children’s author and a freelance writer. Her latest book Festival Stories Through the Year (Harper Collins Children’s Books) has made her fall in love with our festivals, rituals and food.