A grim, winter’s day in London seems like the ideal setting for this novel. The Intelligence Assessment Group in London fights (what else) the ever-increasing threat of global terror. One of the IAG’s projects is to nab terrorist Osama bin Laden. And there’s Pakistan’s ISI, which has a bunch of rogue elements. That’s the setting behind which protagonist Ritwik Kumar operates.
Ritwik has borrowed heavily, is a confirmed alcoholic, and the loan sharks are after him. On that grim winter’s day, he gets into a scuffle with the sharks and is rescued by a diplomat and his friend who ask him to meet them at a certain point from where he is taken to a safe house, and is put under severe test. “It is not every day that a ‘veteran spook’ gets to defect to the enemy,” Ritwik tells himself. If he falls in line with the Qaeda’s ideology, his worries would melt away like snow. Ritwik is a defector, and is willing to give away details about the IAG and its latest plans. Or so it seems.
But, behind this seemingly straight story line is another, more important tale that unravels. From the third-person account in the first chapter, the novel quickly moves on to the first person narrative. In keeping with the tradition of spy thrillers, you are allowed enough opportunities to wonder if Ritwik is just who he is, someone who has fallen out of the IAG’s good books because of his indiscipline and his drinking problems. (There are three bottles of Old Monk in his bag along with a toothbrush, when he gets to the safe house.) Why is he giving away so many details about the IAG, you wonder.
Ritwik, it turns out, at the cost of revealing too much of the plot, is there in the safe house for other reasons. Also, in keeping with any traditional spy thriller’s code is the female interest. There’s Nilofer, who’s married to Junaid, who lives in the safe house where Ritwik is kept. Ritwik is drawn to her, and feels for a woman who hardly has any freedom. Surely, there’s more to it than meets the eye, and if you read through the rest of the book, you’ll find out.
This one’s the kind of book you’ll finish in one reading, without too many breaks. An easy, breeze of a read, the kind you may pick up at airport lounges. Nothing spectacular in terms of literary quality, but there’s enough in it to sustain interest. One wishes there were more sub-plots, maybe something about Nilofer, who draws a lot of interest midway through the book, her childhood in Pakistan, or about Junaid, who’s her husband. There could have been a lot more work on the atmospherics, too. Having said that, When the Snow Melts is not bad at all. Don’t expect too much drama, and you have an easy read on your hands.