Title – The Shadow Runner
Author – Vishal Bahukhandi
Genre – Frame Fiction (story within a story)
Theme – Armed forces
I came across this book while looking up a book gift for a friend, and was so piqued by the title and synopsis that I bought a copy for myself, too. Written by an ex-Army officer, The Shadow Runner offers a unique reading experience – a novel set around life in the academy which turns cadets into officers.
While the tagline itself reveals a story about two boys, the book opens in the thick of battle at Kashmir where a special forces officer remembers his “brother”, immediately heightening the reader’s curiosity about why the story begins with just one of them and what could have happened to the other. The crux of the novel surrounds two boys – Virender and Govind – complete opposites of each other, with their own reasons for wanting to don the maroon beret. We are gradually led into the Indian Military Academy (IMA), with its myriad tales of military life, training, anecdotes, friends and enemies made, banter and shared experiences, camaraderie – everything young cadets go through to complete their training and earn their status as commissioned officers of the Indian Army.
Through his own experiences serving in the army in areas of high insurgent activity like Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern states, the author enlightens us about the preparations our officers go through in order to keep our borders safe. The academy sees all kinds of candidates – those who want to serve the country, those who have been sent there by parents who themselves didn’t get the chance to serve the country, those whose parents served and were sent to the academy by default of being army kids, those who want to start a new life, get over relationships and break ups, leave their old life behind, those discouraged by family and friends over taking up “risky” jobs, those who work hard but fail to get through, those who don’t put in the effort but happen to clear the tests – a plethora of personalities who enter the academy for various reasons, but are ultimately transformed into people who would do anything for their country.
So, each of the characters have their own back story into why they are where they are. And the past leads us to another past, culminating into the reasons for the book’s present. A story within a story within a story, such that the conclusion draws you back to the beginning. I love embedded narratives as a genre, and Major Vishal has done a splendid job with this nested story. Of particular interest as a reader, is where the title fits into the storyline, and the revelation of The Shadow Runner is truly magnificent in its tribute to the men in uniform.
A book about friendship, love, sacrifice, discipline, brotherhood, heartbreak, The Shadow Runner is definitely a book for armed force aspirants, but can be enjoyed by every kind of reader. Besides memoirs and non-fiction books about historical events featuring the armed forces, fiction books authored by officers themselves are rare. It’s so beautifully written by a debut writer, I’m glad my year began with some wonderful books and I hope to see more of Major Vishal’s literary prowess. Highly recommended for its storyline, characters, niche genre, theme, and overall writing.
My rating – 5/5