Man on Fire

Man on Fire

by Stephen Kelman


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"An enthralling novel by a writer of considerable talent" (FT), an unforgettable story of faith, forgiveness, extreme record-breaking, and second chances, from the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Pigeon English.

John Lock has come to India to meet his destiny, fleeing the quiet desperation of his life in England—decades wasted in a meaningless job, a marriage foundering in the wake of loss, and a terrible secret he cannot bear to share with his wife—to offer his help to a man who has learned to conquer pain, a world record-breaker who specializes in feats of extreme endurance and ill-advised masochism.

Bibhuti Nayak has survived forty-three kicks to the unprotected groin in ninety seconds, three forty-pound slabs of concrete smashed over his groin with a sledgehammer, and thirty-one watermelons dropped on his stomach in one minute from a height of more than thirty feet. His next record attempt—to have fifty baseball bats broken over his body—will be the crowning moment in a career that has seen him rise from poverty to become a minor celebrity in a nation where standing out from the crowd requires tenacity, courage, and perhaps a touch of madness.

John is welcomed into Bibhuti's family and into the color and chaos of Mumbai, where he encounters Ping-Pong-playing monks, a fearless seven-year-old martial arts warrior, and an old man who longs for the monsoon to wash him away. As he and Bibhuti take their leap of faith together, John sets out to rewrite a brave end to a life poorly lived.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632864390
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Stephen Kelman's first novel, Pigeon English, was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Guardian First Book Award, and was a Barnes & Noble "New Voices" selection. Kelman was also shortlisted for the New Writer of the Year Award at the 2011 Galaxy National Book Awards. He lives in St. Albans, England.

Read an Excerpt

Man on Fire

By Stephen Kelman

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2015 Stephen Kelman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63286-439-0


I share my cell with a broken-down kid in a T-shirt that says 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas'. He's coming down from something transformational and the tragedy of his return to earth is scratched into his face like a prayer gone cold. His eyes are empty and restless. He knows how close I came to killing a man. He can feel it coming off me and it's making him edgy.

I tell the Inspector I have to be somewhere.


'I have to go home. I'm dying. I haven't got much time left. You know I'm innocent. Let us go, we just want to go home.'

The Inspector mumbles something profane to himself and turns the page of his newspaper.

'You are dying?' my cellmate asks me.

'That's right.'

On hearing this he sways towards me, drawn in. I can smell the fight on his clothes. I know somehow that every day for him is a fight he can't win. His breath is hot and sweet and I need a drink.

'I also am dying,' he says. He looks very young when he says this. There's confederacy in his tone and it sickens me a little bit.

He puts his arms together as though he's handcuffed. The inner sides of his forearms are bitten and ravaged. He feels no disgrace in telling me he's a user of heroin. He says it's killing him but he can't stop.

'I need it too much. I have tried to stop but it is very difficult. My brother died from heroin also. He was nineteen years old. I am twenty-two. I have died twice before but each time I came back. When my brother died I was in college. I was studying to be an engineer. Now I am living on the streets. I steal and I beg. Sometimes I am selling books along the road but it is too much competition, the boys with limbs missing are always making the most sales, the customers are feeling sorry for them. I am just a junkie. They do not feel sorry for me.'

I reach out to touch his shoulder but then I quickly pull back in case he doesn't want the intrusion. I'm not sure why but it's important to me that he thinks I'm a good man, sensitive to the needs of others.

'Life is very hard. God has forgotten me. I know I have disappointed him. This is why he does not listen anymore. There are many other people who need his help before me. They should have it.'

His smile is disarming. He's as untouched by self-pity as I was enslaved to it.

I tell him God hasn't forgotten him. I surprise myself by believing it. But then I shouldn't be surprised, not after everything that's happened. I believe in you informally, like a recipe handed down. You're my bread now. Funny how my taste for you has come on like a fire in an airless room.

The kid hugs himself and shakes like a dog coming out of the rain. The boy he was is visible in the little tremors and the stamping of feet.

He asks me for money. Just enough for one night of comfort once he gets out of here. Then tomorrow he'll buy some more books and go out on the road again. The monsoon is nearly over and many things are washed away. He knows he can't get them back. Just enough for one night of comfort.

I tell him I can't help him. I say God is with him and he shouldn't give up hope.

He lies down on the concrete bench, curls up tight with his back to me. I listen for a warning of a coming rage but within moments his breathing is deep and he's still. I've stopped speculating about the contents of other people's dreams.

An hour goes by and you sit with me. You tell me that the world you made for me is a beautiful place, and it will still be beautiful long after I've left it.

What about earthquakes and volcanoes, I say.

Mostly beautiful, you say. And what horrors there are only pass through so beauty can have a new place to build its ministry. Grass grows from ash and birds from bone.

The horror I made is still fresh, and before I die I hope to be forgiven for it. I let myself smile. I'll miss India and the rain on my skin.

World Record Number 1: 43 kicks to the unprotected groin in one minute and a half (1998)

I achieved maiden World Record at the very first time of asking, at the home of my then employer and great friend Rajesh Battacharjee, who was at this time a local businessman and corporator of high esteem. He was among the four supporters who facilitated along with three of my students, having all landed the job due to their superior determination and belief in shared philosophy. It was quite experimental, as this was a record without precedent, therefore it was my honour to conduct attempt in my own preferred manner – with many thanks to good people from Limca for their kindness and understanding.

I chose the groin kick for my opening record because its danger and high skill level required would guarantee that it would remain intact for many years to come (this has since been proved correct as to this day of writing I remain unmatched in this area). When you are reaching for the heights you must stretch your arms to the furthest limit, this is what I have always believed since I was a youngster. My wife was not convinced but there was no deterring me. I had already my son, Shubham, who was six months old at that time, so my family was complete. Therefore if permanent injury grabbed me it would be no disaster.

During practice period I devised the perfect recipe for success: four supporters kicking me in turn could manage rate of one kick every two seconds or less, and I was sure this would be enough to set a respectable total. Rajesh Battacharjee was leading kicker as he was an important man in the community and also providing venue and refreshments.

'With your training you are well advantaged,' he told me. 'This will be the ideal platform for the skills the almighty has blessed you with.'

His words clicked with me instantly. My deep wish was always to lead the world in a great endeavour, something I alone could do. I had been searching high and low for many years for this outlet. Then on a strange impulse I purchased a copy of the famous Guinness Book of World Records. I found it by chance among the wares of a street seller on Marine Drive during my first lonely months in Mumbai – having arrived in the big city from my native place of Cuttack with high plans to make a name for myself and honour the dear ones I had left behind. I spent every spare hour between its pages trying to find inspiration and release from the toil of my days working as accountant in Rajesh Battacharjee's Everest Engineering factory producing cooling towers. But all records there seemed to me like a joke. Those captured by my fellow Indians especially. Longest beard. Longest fingernails. Most time sitting on pole. Most snakebites survived. Nothing matched my desire to branch out in new direction. I wished to make a fresh impact and when, some three years into my stint in Mumbai, Rajesh Battacharjee mentioned groin kicking as an untested area of achievement it sounded to me like the perfect example of this goal. I had not been so excited by this discovery since first I outstripped my friends in push-ups back in my native place as a young boy. Then I knew I was destined for great things and the feeling this time was one hundred times stronger. When I closed my eyes to introspect I saw a fantastic fire and emerging from this was BB Nayak with his arms up high in victory and gold medal of the World Record holder hanging from his neck.

'I will be the world topper in kicks to the groin,' I declared with great seriousness.

'Yes, BB, you will!' Rajesh Battacharjee agreed, and we embraced in spirit of joy and companionship. I was itching to go full steam ahead.

Period of training leading up to the attempt was quite enjoyable. It began with Rajesh Battacharjee and selected students overcoming unease at kicking me in unprotected groin. At first they were very afraid of hurting me and I had to build up their confidence with repeated assurances. Each time they kicked and I did not collapse they felt a little bit better until they were able to use full force with no inhibition. Then it was all plain sailing. First few days were sore but I kept this news from them to spare their concern. When I adjusted my breathing pattern and added extra meditation time into the warm-up it became fun for everybody. Every session produced better results and I was able to withstand more kicks with no ill effects, up to twenty continuously. When this milestone was achieved I was comfortable that success was in the bag.

Then a heavy drawback when Guinness people refused to recognise the event. I received fateful message only two weeks before the big day – as you can imagine this put me in a spin and I was gravely worried that my carefully laid plans would be all for nothing. The letter explained that due to extreme nature of this activity they were unwilling to encourage possible harm to my person. I respected their decision as they are organisation of worldwide esteem but it left me in state of punctured spirits.

'Perhaps it is a sign that you should abandon this course before you receive injury,' my wife told me. 'There are other records you can break if the desire is still strong, and they are less dangerous.'

Of course I did not listen to her opinion as it made no sense. We were at that time still quite newly married and she did not know how strong was my belief in these great moments. I could no more give up on this new goal in my life than a fish can stop swimming. 'There is another solution,' I told her. 'If the Guinness people will not ratify this record then I will get the support of Limca instead. They will be more than keen to jump on board, I am sure of it.'

If you are not familiar, the Limca Book of Records is the world's greatest collection after Guinness – and to make all the more satisfying is exclusive to achievers from my country. Limca are also more welcoming to aspiring record breakers with commitment to spreading word of Indian excellence to all corners of the globe. I received their full approval sans delay – the record was in my grasp again! One more week of intensive training and I would be ready to take first giant step into my future of dreams.

This final week was nail-biting time. Not only was I very busy with my work at the factory on top of heavy practice schedule, also my wife was not very encouraging. To avoid marital strife I was obliged to cease kicking practice in my home and instead focused all my energies on overall strength training and prolonged bouts of meditation. Only when she was not in the vicinity I would ask one of my friends to kick me in the groin to confirm that resistance still remained there and training regime had paid off. Then the big day came calling. One last appeal to my wife to come and support me went unheard, she remained at home with the child. Despite this snub I left for the venue in frame of great confidence and peacefulness. It was a beautiful sunny day and the almighty was walking alongside me, positive outcome was decided.

Large section of my friends, students and colleagues were gathered at the home of Rajesh Battacharjee to greet my arrival with warmest words of encouragement. Amrit Battacharjee, brother of Ramesh, manager on his behalf of Everest Audio-Video Retail, acted as official video cameraman despite troublesome cataracts and set up in courtyard for capturing the all-important footage for means of official recognition. My student Vijay Two took charge of the stills camera (I had at this time four students called Vijay and it was a joke of ours that I would refer to them by number to avoid confusion). Official count taken by my oldest student Gopal Dutta, who has trained under me since my first karate class attended in Navi Mumbai Sports Association, my local facility, and who at seventy-five years was most trustworthy occupant for this role. He was downtrodden that I did not include him in band of kickers – my observation told me while power was no problem he did not possess necessary speed in legs – but when I conveyed to him the vital importance of timekeeper's job he jumped in with both feet. He joined the practice group in lead-up to the big event to perfect counting method – everyone agreed the best action was to mark each kick with clear downward movement of his hand as well as verbal confirmation so the camera would pick everything up for purpose of verification – and together the six of us formed a tight bond.

By the day of the attempt we were well-drilled squad. No more mishaps of one kicker getting in the way of another and all kicks delivered with matching tension – we had the routine in total control and the smiles on our faces after each practice session were proof of this.

Back to the big day. Myself and four kickers prepared with stretching, period of meditation and intake of water. Final messages of support were conveyed by the crowd, who filled the small space and also watched from inside Rajesh Battacharjee's home where his wife had prepared mango and sweet lime for all-comers. Feeling of love was evident from every side. I stripped to my briefs to confirm to the world and camera that no protective garment had been secretly installed on my person. Also made a short statement that no numbing agents had been used and my conduct was at all times that of honest dedicated sportsman. Then I cleared my mind of all external things. Took ready position. Four kickers made a circle around me as we had determined, all maintaining ideal distance from me and each other to make a smooth action. Gopal Dutta stood in prime spot to carry his duty. Every element was in its correct place.

Needless to say I was very relaxed by now. I could feel the almighty sitting on my shoulder – he spoke very quietly to me: 'You will do it, BB, you will do it. No need to worry.' Everything would click according to his pleasure. I made one final breath and gave Gopal Dutta the nod.

'One. Two. Three. Start kicking!' and we jumped into action. Rajesh Battacharjee delivered the first kick. It was straight and hard exactly as rehearsed. It made its target imperfectly, however, and I widened my stance slightly to take account of this. Next one, delivered by Nihal Prasad, the youngest and most eager of the four, was a real beauty. I sensed the impact of his foot most sublimely and exhaled in a trice to protect myself against the force. His example gave us all a boost and kicks three and four connected on schedule – I felt a small tightness on number four but I quickly erased it from my mind. At this point my concentration was so complete that I was not aware of the world around me. I was focused only on my breathing and counting the kicks as they landed. It was great feeling like floating on a wave of love and positive energy.

My supporters were working wonders, aiming their kicks with great precision and speed. Only Rajesh Battacharjee, who was untrained in martial arts and also unfit due to poor diet and general laziness was finding pace difficult to keep up.

'I cannot carry on,' he whispered, his eyes wearing look of panic and legs beginning to wobble like overladen donkey. I tried to urge him on with reassuring expression but he slipped in trying to connect his next kick and landed in a pile on the ground.

'Twenty!' counted Gopal Dutta.

'I am sorry, BB!' panted Rajesh Battacharjee from his prone position.

Grim looks exchanged between the remaining group but we quickly recovered our senses. The three kickers moved in to close the gap Rajesh Battacharjee's fall had created. We pressed on in seamless style, we would not let any goofup derail us from our pursuit of glory.

'Go on, BB!' shouted a well-wisher from the crowd.

I was comfortable to press ahead for a high total. The kicks kept on coming at steady pace.

'Thirty! Thirty-one!'

'Keep going!'

The kicking was making a tremendous pattern now, sum of the best possibilities in the world was centred in my groin. Each impact was lovely demonstration of the power of the almighty to reward toughest measures – I did not wish to stop. I started to hum along to the sound of each kick, counting each figure in my mind with joy of inner voice.

'Thirty-six! Thirty-seven!' called Gopal Dutta, his voice now distant like waves from the sea.

I knew I was already a record breaker, but still I kept on pushing to furthest edge of mind and bodily limits. Time was like a small bird perched on my hand, his wings brushing against my fingers but no desire to fly off, he was very comfortable there.

'Forty! Forty-one!'


Excerpted from Man on Fire by Stephen Kelman. Copyright © 2015 Stephen Kelman. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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