Book review

Anuja Chauhan’s new romance will raise heartbeats for more than one reason (there’s a war thrown in)

Intrepid pilot rescues alluring peacenik. Love is inevitable.

“’First, you stuff your nose down, Baaz-ke-maaphik! Then you swoop down, Baaz-ke-maaphik! Then you pull back and open the throttle wide, all the way till you’re on your back, if you have the guts, Baaz-ke-maaphik!’ Instructor Hosannah Carvalho pauses, panting, his black eyes glittering like manic torches in his dark face. “Unnurstand?”

The newly recruited class of the Air Force Flying College Jodhpur nods back at him, hypnotised.

With a satisfied grunt, the basic flying manoeuvres instructor wheels around to the board and continues his graphic, fast-paced and extremely bloodthirsty lecture.

‘Aggression and awareness are the keywords to being a good Fighter. Never let your guard down! Baaz-ke-maaphik, you shoot up, up, up! Baaz-ke-maaphik, you keenly take stock of your surroundings. Baaz-ke-maaphik, you plan your route home…’

‘Raka, my man,’ Madan Subbiah drawls cautiously out of the corner of his mouth. ‘What is Baazky-Maafee?’

‘Like-a-Baaz,’ Rakesh Aggarwal provides in a muted mutter.

‘And a Baaz is…?’ Madan wants to know.

‘A hawk, Maddy. Or maybe a falcon. A murderous bird, basically.’”

Devoted readers of Anuja Chauhan’s fiction will find, in Baaz, at least two big surprises. The second of these, appearing towards the end, I am afraid I must suppress in the interests of a spoiler-free review, but the first I shall lay out for you in some detail.

That Zoya Singh Solanki is the bossily pulsating heart of The Zoya Factor is self-evident from the title. But even in Chauhan’s other novels, handsome heroes notwithstanding, it is Jinni (Battle for Bittora), Dabbu and her sisters (Those Pricey Thakur Girls), and last – some might say least – Bonu Singh (The House That BJ Built), the heroines, who power the narrative and tilt all empathy to themselves. In terms of footage, it’s usually 70/30 in favour of the girls.

With Baaz, though, there is a clear reversal. It is primarily the story of the dashing Flying Officer Ishaan “Baaz” Faujdaar, batch of ’68, hero of the 1971 war. His love interest, the anti-war photo-journalist (who’d modelled in a bikini once, for a lark) Tehmina “Tell-me-na” Dadyseth, usually called Tinka, is but the foil.

So if I were to reference GJV Prasad of JNU, I might say, in her fifth novel Chauhan has gravitated from ladki lit to ladka lit.

The ladka

The action opens in gaon Chakkahera – then in Punjab, now Haryana – where we meet the irrepressible child, Shaanu, and his “poora baawda” obsession with “feeling” my heart going “dhookk-dhookk-dhoookk”.

In quest of said dhookk-dhookk-dhoookky feeling, he has exhausted the farmstead and village and finally found three satisfying activities: long-jumps over uncovered wells, lighting big bombs and patakas around Diwali, and, best of all, the many uses of railway tracks:

“Ishaan starts baiting the trains when he is ten. They steam past on a line about a twenty-minute walk from his stepfather’s small, crumbly pista-green haveli in Chakkahera, and whenever the embittered man starts turning on his children to vent his many frustrations, the skinny boy, small for his age, backs quietly out of the aangan, slips on his too-large Bata chappals and makes for the train tracks, defiantly humming a jaunty tune.

The Republic of India is but ten years old, and Chakkahera is just a large village in Punjab province, named for its many tyre factories – smoke-spewing monstrosities that drown out the sweet rural scents of harshringaar, dung fires and mustard flowers with the aggressive smell of burning rubber.

~~~

Not even a little out of breath, he picks his way down to the tracks and squats beside them, one hand on the cool steel, waiting for it to start humming. The humming begins a good ten minutes before the train arrives. It is followed by strong vibrations, a queer rushing noise and the sound of a whistle blowing, and then the train turns the corner, a pulsating iron monster, the fastest, most powerful thing in the child’s universe, hurtling towards him with all it’s got – huge, indestructible, unstoppable.

Ishaan leaps up to straddle the tracks, arms thrown out to keep his balance, body tense as a drawn bow, heart thudding faster and faster, pupils dilating, muscles contracting, concentration pinpointing onto just one thing – the massive iron face of the engine rushing at him.”

Apparently, the trick is to jump off the tracks when the words “Bharatiya Railways” become readable.

Initially shocked at Shaanu’s single-minded pursuit of the dhookk-dhookk-dhoookk feeling, the sort of khatron-ke-khiladi type of thrills he lives for, his Nanaji recommends the Air Force (as opposed to the paagal-khana in Agra which others suggested). The idea sticks.

A decade or so later, against the wishes of his farming family, Ishaan Faujdaar runs away to the prestigious Air Force Flying College in Jodhpur, defying Chaudhary Chimman Singh, his stingy step-father. At Jodhpur, Ishaan-the-kisaan encounters various class barriers: NDA versus Direct Recruitment from civilian colleges is one fault-line. Fauj-as-family-trade versus first-generation-attracted-by-the-glamorous-upper-class-lifestyle-and-a-Defence-Services-alcohol-quota is another. Those who speak English as a first language –­ throwing in a French phrase or three – and those who are far happier jabbering in desi bhashas is a third.

But self-programmed as the most reckless and least restrained, the charming, grey-eyed Ishaan quickly emerges a hero in Jodhpur and attains a couple of comrades, the Farhan and Raju to his Rancho, if you will. Rakesh Agarwal, urf Raka, who will one day fly the prized MiG (as opposed to Ishaan’s less flashy Gnat) and Madan Subbiah, urf Maddy, scion of a brave Coorg clan, who will add some sex appeal to the dull business of transport by flying around a large Caribou.

The new class hierarchy, as opposed to the old, of course, involves who flies what. And Ishaan would have been top of the pecking order, flying around in a MiG, were it not for the pacifist Tell-me-na Dadyseth.

Gurmehar of the Seventies

The sexual chemistry between opposites has always been part of the toe-curling quality of Chauhan’s oeuvre. In Baaz, it’s taken to the next level. While training at Jodhpur, Ishaan and his comrades are tasked with rescuing a hippie-ly clad Tinka as she is running away from home to avoid a marriage arranged by her eccentric General father and study photography (“They teach that?” Shaanu asks).

With a great aptitude for prescience, Chauhan writes her Tinka as a Gurmeharesque character right out of a posh Delhi college (Miranda House as opposed to LSR), thus introducing the element of debate and dissension in the nationalist rhetoric of the flying institute, where young men her age are training to defend the country, and die trying.

The banter between Shaanu and Tinka, at their first meeting, is vintage Chauhan:

“She speaks English so fast! He has trouble understanding all of it, but he sort-of gets the gist.

He grins, the grey eyes sparkling.

‘Well, you kick like a camel,’ he says lightly, then tries out a phrase his boxing instructor always uses. ‘Employing both strength and science.’

Tinka looks gratified. ‘My brother taught me,’ she says with a faint trace of pride.

‘Oh, really?’ Shaanu is interested. ‘Fauji?’

She gives a terse little nod.

‘Which Corps?’

‘He’s dead,’ she says baldly.

He extends a hand in sympathy. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am.’

She gives an awkward shrug.

He notices the dark circles under her eyes.

‘Stop calling me ma’am,’ she says tersely. ‘It sounds ridiculous. Officers only call married ladies ma’am. Not girls my age.’

Shaanu flushes, feeling like a bumpkin. Clearly the general’s daughter has her cantonment etiquette down pat.

‘Do you believe in god?’ she asks.

Shaanu blinks. This seems a major leap in topic. ‘Uh, I don’t know.’ He scratches his head. ‘I suppose so? My sisters do, at any rate. I’m more a live-in-the-moment kind of chap, really.’

Tinka sits up and hugs her knees. ‘Well, my dad believes in Country,’ she says gloomily. ‘Country is his god. But I think it’s a bullshit, fake, artificial god. And I can’t say that at home, can I, because that would mean Jimmy died for nothing – and if Pa has to face that he’ll go mad.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Not that he isn’t half-mad already.’

Shaanu’s young face grows stern. ‘So you think your brother and all of us here at the academy and my father, who was a freedom fighter, are all a bunch of fools protecting some nakli god?’”

(To find out how Shaanu lost his MiG over Tinka, naturally, you have to read the book.)

What works: 1971

Setting a romantic comedy against the backdrop of the ‘71 war, and, in it, pitting a young officer against a young (hot) dissenter – do note the equally Bollywood class divide between them – is obviously a fabulous formula. Chauhan’s meticulous research, especially about the Battle of Boyra, based on “deeds done by real soldiers”, brings alive a searing time in the recent history of the sub-continent. The fictional airbase of Kalaiganga, where “34 Squadron – The Streaks” – loosely based on the “22 Squadron – the Swifts” – are posted, is closer to Dum Dum, the site of the refugee camps, than the original Kalaikunda airbase was.

Tinka arrives in Calcutta in November, expensive cameras in tow, to volunteer at the refugee camps and take photographs. She is employed by a fancy American news wire. By then, she is famous everywhere as India’s own “bathing beauty” after an advertisement she did for a lark, where she is dancing under a water-fall in a bikini.

Kalaiganga provides an electric backdrop to the burgeoning love-hate romance of Ishaan and Tinka, as they meet in the colonial Sarhind Club, with the rumblings of war all around them. But as discussed before, the footage remains 70/30 or (even more perhaps?) in favour of Ishaan. So we get to accompany him on his most daring missions. To the lay reader, the details of the Bangladesh War are recreated in detail. If the last part, leading up to the surrender, is a bit OTT, that we are happy to go along with, in the spirit of the moment.

Kaahaani mein twist or a (very Rajinikath) United Nations ending for our hero

One of the chief lessons in plotting that I have learnt from Chauhan’s books is the element of the One-Final-Twist at the end. So, where most writers would allow the denouement to gently fall, Chauhan introduces a hairpin turn, which, of course makes for a giddy finale. In Baaz, too, there is this final twist and in the Acknowledgements Chauhan writes:

 “All IAF pilots in this story are entirely fictitious. Deeds done by them were actually done by real soldiers, with real names, of whom the author and the nation are very proud. The climax is entirely imagined, but does exist in the delicious realm of ‘could have been’.”

And this is where, unfortunately, I have to differ on the extent of the “could have been”. While her detailed research on the actual deeds gave her a convincing fabric to the rest of the story, the entirely imagined climax, while stunning in a Rajnikanth film sort of way, must be read with a willing suspension of disbelief.

Even if we accept that Ishaan is a genius, who, though trained in a Folland Gnat, can fly a whole range of different aircrafts at a moment’s notice and can land a non-navalised aircraft on an aircraft carrier, also without any training, the whole League-of-Nations angle of every-country-helping-the-other-in-crisis, hours after they were opposing one another, is rather wish-fulfilmenty, hardly realistic in the context of the times.

The attitude of the Nixon-sent USS Enterprise could only be the way it has been depicted, in the pages of fiction, thirty-six years later. At the time though it represented the most concrete motif of the cold war turning hot. And, finally, knowing that their beloved leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in whose name the war had been fought, was still in Pakistan, the Mukti Bahini’s quest for revenge against the Butcher of Bangladesh would surely have been strategically postponed.

While in the rest of the book the action develops organically, here it becomes apparent that Chauhan has flexi-fitted the story to facilitate a pre-planned finale. The ending works, but the stretch marks show.

In the final analysis, strategic quibbles aside (for instance, Mrs Gandhi would never say “we will teach them a lesson they will never forget!” about Pakistan), in Baaz, Chauhan gives her readers everything they want – delicious Hinglish, a love story that is as warm and fuzzy as it is smart and peppery, and a cast of complimentary characters who sparkle as much as the main cast – but she also gives them a lot more. A fun novel about serious things, when you surrender to Baaz you must remember its times in the spirit of its dedication – “Jai Jawan Jai Kisaan” – the purity of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s coinage dimming our own eye-rolling predilections to a pleasant sense of earnestness. An especial must-read, if, like me, you much prefer the seventies!

Baaz, Anuja Chauhan, HarperCollins India.

Devapriya Roy is the author, most recently, of the Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, written along with Saurav Jha.

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