We feel especially so after a captivating read of Karan Bajaj’s Johnny Gone Down, a novel that follows the fascinating intercontinental journey of the protagonist, Nikhil Arya (aka Johnny), even as destiny deals him with severe blows at the most unexpected of times. The writer, on his part, has penned not just a travel story, but a saga of emotions that underline his attempt to highlight the experience of displacement and failure as also unconditional love and friendship that we all experience from time to time.
The story begins with Nikhil, a happy-go-lucky MIT graduate, setting out on a holiday to Cambodia with his friend Sameer. With dreams in his eyes of his impending job assignment in NASA and the promise of a fun-filled vacation in picturesque Cambodia, Nikhil boards a flight in Boston and lands in Phnom Penh with Sameer only to learn that Khmer Rouge has just overthrown the civilian government in a coup!
With bullets flying around and gunshots renting the air, it is definitely not a situation they were expecting. Not losing heart, they rush to the American Embassy for a passage to safety. Unfortunately, the Embassy allows only American citizens on its helicopters and Sameer holds an Indian passport. A braveheart that he is, Nikhil thrusts his American passport into Sameer’s hands and sees him off to safety.
At this point in time, little does Nikhil realise that this one act of kindness for his friend would turn his life upside down. For, he is soon captured by the Khmer Rouge who torture him to no end till he loses track of date and time.
Surviving on just a bowl of rice gruel a day, he makes a false confession of being a CIA agent in the hope that they’ll kill him and put an end to his endless agony. But, destiny has other plans for him. Jail authorities take him in a jeep in the thickest of jungles and Nikhil snatches the opportunity to make good his escape.
When he wakes up to reality after his great escape, he finds himself with an amputated arm and a bleak future, but in the tender loving care of Buddhist monks in Thailand. Taken in by the preachings of Buddha, he begins his journey of life afresh as Monk Namche. Walking the Buddha’s path, Nikhil learns to accept the idea of Karmic yoga and becomes instrumental in setting up Brazil’s first meditation monastery in Rio de Janeiro.
However, even his peaceful life as a Buddhist monk fails to harness his restless soul. He decides to leave the monastery and, as luck would have it, lands himself in the custody of Marco, a slumlord and a smalltime Don. For Nikhil, this brush with mafia proves transformational as he uses his organisational skills to help Marco launder his drug money and set up a chain of retails across the globe. In the meanwhile, he falls in love and fathers a child when destiny dumps him unceremoniously in America – forty, homeless and penniless.
Unperturbed, he befriends an MIT graduate, who is termed a failure in the corporate world, and creates a videogame. Yet again, destiny lands him in New Delhi, the place where it all began, to play Russian roulette. Will this Pol Pot survivor-turned-Buddhist monk-turned-drug lord-turned-homeless accountant-turned-software mogul-turned-deadly game fighter survive the final game of life and death? Well! Read Johnny Gone Down to find out.
This gripping tale with the manic pace of an action thriller is definitely not for the weak-hearted. With all the trappings of an interesting tale – drama, action, romance, suspense, adventure and politics — Johnny Gone Down is a story well told. A candid representation of the lives of extraordinary people who take the road less travelled, the book tries to highlight the fact that we are all mere pawns in the game of destiny.
A page turner right from the word ‘go’, the novel touches the hearts of its readers even as they follow the protagonist’s dramatic moves from being Nikhil to Monk Namche to Coke Buddha to Nick to Johnny and back to Nikhil Arya.
The chain of bizarre events the protagonist finds himself in and the transformation it entails evoke a sense of awe. So do the simplicity of language and the lucid writing style of the author. Though, at times, it comes through as a spicy Bollywood flick, we are definitely not complaining. With Johnny Gone Down, author Karan Bajaj has definitely come a long way since his debut Keep Off the Grass.