Sara Banerji’s first novel, revolves around the life of Karna, sent floating down the river by his young mother, Koonty, at birth. We follow Karna’s fate, from his childhood on the streets of Calcutta, to fame and fortune as a Bollywood actor.
From his foster mother, Dolly, Karna learns of his heritage and after her death, he goes in search of his birth mother. It is then that he discovers that he has a half brother, Arjuna, whose life has been privileged and easy compared to Karna’s. The tale tells of the brothers’ rivalry, each constantly trying to outdo the other. In the end, it becomes clear that only one of the brothers can win outright and the story ends tragically.
‘Shining Hero’ is based on an old Hindu epic poem known as ‘The Mahabharata’. In it, Karna and Arjuna are warriors, fighting for a kingdom. The poem, like the novel, is a moral tale, where heroes act badly and where the deserving don’t necessarily triumph.
The main problem with the story is that, though it relies so heavily on ‘The Mahabharata’, there is very little explanation of the poem, which leaves us wondering how the two are related. The book explores morality in that the supposed hero does act badly and his morals are often questionable, but there is the sense that more explanation of the poem is needed.
We never quite bond with the characters either. The good characters, Karna and Dolly, have to endure terrible poverty and heartbreak with very little to compensate them in the end, while the triumphant ‘hero’ of the book seems to have a very easy existence and very shady morals.
It’s an interesting story, for the questions it raises about morality but, ultimately, it lacks depth, both emotionally and creatively. It also doesn’t help that you don’t end up liking the triumphant ‘shining hero’ and the obvious irony is that he’s not so shining after all.