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  Books   28 May 2017  Book review: Romancing the past, fauji style

Book review: Romancing the past, fauji style

THE ASIAN AGE. | KANKANA BASU
Published : May 28, 2017, 12:28 am IST
Updated : May 28, 2017, 12:28 am IST

At heart, this book is about a love affair between a peacenik and a pilot with war as the backdrop.

Baaz by Anuja Chauhan HarperCollins, Rs 399.
 Baaz by Anuja Chauhan HarperCollins, Rs 399.

A new book from the high priestess of commercial fiction is always a reason for excitement and, in her latest novel, Baaz, Anuja Chauhan does not disappoint. The blatantly filmi title and the book’s cover featuring a dashing young man in aviators holding a helmet; a fighter plane in the background gives ample indication of the nature of things to come. The novel opens with a 10-year-old boy from Chakkahera, Haryana, standing before an oncoming train and leaping out of the way seconds before it whizzes past. The same devil-may-care trait comes to define Ishaan Faujdaar, when as a new recruit at the Air Force Flying College, Jodhpur, he readily dives into water from a height of 40 feet without knowing how to swim. His fellow recruits, Madan Subbiah (Maddy) and Rakesh Aggarwal (Raka), are charmed by their provincial batchmate’s winsome ways even though he appears to speak a strange brand of chutnified English and displays unsettling behaviour patterns. The boisterous bunch of recruits settle down to the rigours of Air Force training even as the bashful Raka’s romance with the beautiful Juhi blossoms with a little help from his friends.

A large section of the book explores the recruitment process and male bonding, and the camaraderie is very well etched and palpable. Chaos strikes when the three friends are assigned the job of apprehending Tehmina Dadyseth, daughter of major general Ardisher Dadyseth, on the run from an arranged marriage, and bring her back to base. As luck would have it, it is left to Ishaan/Baaz/Shaanu to handle the situation and he allows the volatile young woman (who reveals her photography aspirations and throws global peace theories at him in the little time they are together) to escape for reasons inexplicable even to himself. And thus, the stage is set for a great romance.

The entire bunch is posted in Kalaiganga. Raka and Juhi get married and, in faraway Bombay, Tehmina (Tinka) is roped into romping under a waterfall in a green bikini and the ad goes on to become an instant hit; Tinka finds her face (and figure) plastered on every other hoarding in the country. To get away from public attention, she chops her hair short and while heading for Calcutta to volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity, runs full tilt into Ishaan. The connection between the two picks up again in what promises to be a major star-crossed love affair. Right enough, just as things appear to be getting cosy for them, there is an air strike by Pakistan and the two countries go to war. Baaz is summoned to duty and what follows is some splendid war action revolving around the 1971 Indo-Pak war for the liberation of East Pakistan. As, one by one, fellow fighter pilots fall to the enemy, Ishaan finds himself in the thick of action. The accidental bombing of an orphanage by the IAF, the use of Napalm bombs, other horrors and atrocities of war are reported in an impartial manner by Tinka in her capacity as war reporter; the tug of ethics and shifting loyalties in a typical war scenario are well depicted by the author.

As misunderstandings and ideological differences rip the budding relationship between Tinka and Ishaan, Tinka leaves for Dacca to report stories from the scene of action while Ishaan is dispatched with his team to bomb the enemy. After some hits, misses and daringly cheeky stunts in the face of an incredulous enemy, Ishaan’s battered plane crashes into enemy territory. And then unfolds a memorable Dacca chapter where an exhilarated Ishaan, Tinka and Maddy find themselves both spectators and midwives to the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh.

A first-time reader might be daunted by the volley of Hinglish unleashed by the author, but once past this hurdle, s/he happily goes along with the flow of things. Chauhan establishes an instant rapport with the reader with her breezy prose.

There is no pretension to carving literary history with this novel, a fact that is immensely refreshing. However, the war action is crisply described and catapults the novel well beyond generally established chick lit parameters. A procession of lively characters traipses in and out, and these include the bombastic instructor Hosannah Carvalho, the exotic Harry Rose, Nikka Khan, the butcher of Bengal, and others.

There is a cinematic feel to the entire book, which in all likelihood can lend itself very snugly to a screenplay for a Bollywood potboiler in the near future. A few readers might experience niggling déjà vu while reading this romance-meets-action novel. The brash and charismatic Ishaan could bring on fleeting memories of Tom Cruise in Top Gun, as would the dogfights in the skies; the oddball Jat-Southie-Baniya combination of three friends and the tragic history of Tinka’s brother are vaguely reminiscent of the film 3 Idiots, and the maudlin moments of farewells/homecomings are straight out of Bollywood tearjerkers. Chauhan recycles the iconic (Liril) waterfall ad with panache more than three decades after it was made and captures the zeitgeist of the 70s effectively. The mention of era-specific events, movies, singers, old spellings of places and other milestones enhance the period feel as does cutting abruptly to the present in her concluding chapter.

The characters are stereotypical from Tinka’s eccentric Parsi aunt, Kainaz Dadyseth, to her overbearing (ex-military) father with the gigantic walrus mustache, and from the adrenaline junkie Ishaan to the effete Machoda.

A lot of research appears to have gone into exploring the technical aspects of warfare and these come across as interesting and informative. Chauhan does a brilliant job of conjuring life as lived in the confines of the Air Force bases and this in itself could make the novel a fascinating read for civilians. The hierarchy and protocol within the IAF and the good-natured rivalry between pilots of different fighter planes are well depicted. Riddled with improbable coincidences and predictable twists, the plot does not score very high on originality nor are the characters painstakingly fleshed out. And yet this novel comes together wonderfully well. A lot of it has to do with the author’s flair for lusty jokes, colourful colloquialism and having grown up in an Army environment, and, thus, an innate feel for her subject. A lot of Chauhan’s humour revolves around ingenious phonetic wordplay (baaz as in eagle, as also in “baaztard”). Relationships between characters have a toasty feel-good touch to them whether it is the back-slapping cuss word-studded bonhomie among the recruits, Juhi’s protectiveness towards her husband’s pals or Tinka’s unconditional love for her wayward niece, the exception being Ishaan’s abrasive equation with his stepfather.

At heart, this book is about a love affair between a peacenik and a pilot with war as the backdrop. But it is also about old-fashioned values like patriotism, camaraderie, unity, loyalty and chivalry. The author informs readers that she wrote the book as a tribute to the men in uniform; the novel could not have been more aptly timed. God knows that the armed forces deserve every kind of tribute possible. A racy read featuring high-octane action with pit stops for some unabashed mush (or you could flip that the other way round), Baaz captivates.

Kankana Basu is a Mumbai-based writer. Her published works of fiction include a collection of short stories, Vinegar Sunday, and a novel, Cappuccino Dusk.

Tags: novel, air force, book review, baaz