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Why Anuja Chauhan deserves my salaam for her new book Baaz

Finally, a cracker of a thriller set in the 1971 Bangladesh war.

 |  Rough Cut  |  4-minute read |   30-04-2017
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So her Parsi father wants her to get married. His Jat stepfather barely acknowledges him. She belongs to the world of entitlement, evening gowns and high teas. He can barely speak English correctly. But he can fly, boy can he fly. And she, well, in the manner of all posh young women of a certain age and era, can do anything she wants, only not for long enough — these can include frolicking under a waterfall like the Liril Girl as well as taking photographs in war-torn nations without missing a beat.

Add to it GNATs, MiGs, and other such flying machines, and you have a cracker of a thriller set in the 1971 Bangladesh war, largely based in a fictional air base, modelled on xxx.

She is Tehmina Dadyseth, and he is Squadron leader Ishaan “Baaz” Faujdaar. She believes in peace, he believes in war if that’s what the enemy wants. She has a martinet of an aunt, Kainaaz Dadyseth, who like all old Parsi ladies has a heart of gold and Godrej full of money (sorry sorry stereotyping, but you get the picture). He has a sister whom he adores but doesn’t think too deeply about. In fact, Baaz doesn’t think too deeply about anything.

Anuja Chauhan, who has a particular talent for channelling the thoughts of excitable young women, does the he said/she said dialogue perfectly. Sample this:

‘They teach all the wrong stuff,’ she says fiercely. ‘All that crap you were telling me that day about hatred for the enemy, channelling your bloodlust, Pakistan murdabad. That’s animal behaviour!’

But this is too much for Ishaan.

‘Look,’ he says frankly. ‘Say what you want, but I won’t hesitate if I have to kill some Paki soldiers – and I won’t be racked by guilt afterwards either! They’re enemies of India, and it’s my job to kill them, to protect our civilians and keep the country safe. It’s that simple. Trust me.’

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Along with this delicious will-they-won’t-they love story, Chauhan weaves a war that is exploding around this air base, where sorties happen almost at the same time as lengthy evenings at the bar. There is a brutal Pakistani Army general called the Butcher of Bengal who is a bit of a Tumbola aficionado, an undercover Mukti Bahini Macho Da, a silk kaftan wearing character called Harry Rose (aka Gulab Kali), a crash landing, a refugee camp where dramas are enacted by privileged young women to give them a sense of purpose and keep children employed. It does neither very well.

Swivelling between Calcutta and Dacca, as both cities were then, the story takes almost as many as twists and turns as Baaz’s fighter jet. At the heart of the romantic thriller is a wonderful tribute to the armed forces, not surprising given Chauhan is an Army brat and has spent most of her life in cantonments. Here is just an example of the air force wife raising morale:

‘No weeping!’ says Mrs Pomfret sternly, inhaling through flared, battle-ready nostrils. ‘No whining! Remember, this is real life, not Sangam or Aradhana in which IAF officers die ekdum phataak se, after getting the heroine pregnant. Statistics show that eight out of ten IAF Fighters survive war. So please don’t panic!’

Hai hai, shubh shubh bol, chudail, Juhi thinks resentfully.

Apart from wives such as the above (sweetly called Mrs Pomfret), there are also brave officers who are chums as much as mentors, such as Wing Commander Carvalho, nicknamed Kuch Bhi Karvalo. There’s a band of boys who will be forever young in their memories — Baaz, Maddy and Raka. There’s the Dacca hotel swarming with foreign journalists looking for a good story and even better photograph. There’s a dawakhana, which may or may not be a safehouse for sympathisers of independent Bangaldesh. And then there’s the war. Read this:

Descending the red-carpeted double staircase (of the Grand Ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel), Tinka is conscious of a feeling of complete surreality. Not far away from here, Indian soldiers are crawling on their bellies through mud and slush. In the lanes of Old Dacca, West Pakistani soldiers and Bihari Razzakars are engaged in bloody clashes with student leaders and Muktis. Aircraft carrier USS Enterprise has led a section of America’s Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, and Soviet warships have been sent from Vladivostok in retaliation. The Soviets have vetoed America’s resolution to have a ceasefire declared in the region by the United Nations Security Council – a ceasefire upon which all of Yahya Khan’s hopes were pinned. The only ceasefire happening at the moment is the four-hour mini-break decreed by the Red Cross to allow stranded civilian expatriates to flee the city. In spite of all this teeming activity, here is the Intercontinental Hotel, brimming with Christmas spirit.

Finally, a popular book that is deserving of the war on which it is based. Chauhan should get a medal of honour for this. My salaams to her.

Also read: Remembering 'Mapu' Martand Singh: My mentor, India's textile revival hero

Writer

Kaveree Bamzai Kaveree Bamzai @kavereeb

Consulting editor, India Today Group

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