Love in the Time of War

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A pulp panorama featuring an Air Force romantic

Baaz | Anuja Chauhan | HarperCollins | 430 Pages | Rs 399

TO TAKE A break from scripting training videos for a voluntary organisation (work that gratifies the conscience, but is not much fun), I agreed to review Anuja Chauhan’s Baaz. So reader, I have to confess that I might be praising Baaz more than it deserves, simply because of the respite it offered me. Having said that, Baaz is an entertaining read. The story establishes its charming characters early on and both plot and pace-wise, it flies.

Chauhan, was a name in advertising before she resigned in 2010 to chase a full-time (successful) career in commercial fiction. Two of her earlier books are being made into Hindi films. Baaz shouts ‘Bollywood movie’ from its first scene, I mean, chapter one.

Chauhan establishes the hero, Ishaan Faujdaar as Baaz early on. ‘Baaz’ means falcon, and incidentally, is short for bastard. This nickname that his buddies at the Air Force Flying School in Jodhpur gave him, sets off a book that’s alive with adventure in every direction.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the 1971 war. Ishaan (mostly called Shaanu) and his charming mates, Raka and Maddy, are posted at Kalaiganga, a large Air Force station of the Eastern Air outside Calcutta. It houses a division of MiGs, Gnats and Caribous ready for battle with the Pakistani forces that are plaguing Bangladesh. We’re introduced to Shaanu’s love interest, independent and fiery Tinka, a retired General’s daughter who hates war. Shaanu and Tinka’s blazing courtship becomes a lovelorn thing when they separate into their roles as Fighter and Pacifist in the war that swallows everyone up.

Shaanu ‘Baaz’ Faujdaar is a sort of desi version of Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Chauhan’s style mixes gloss and glamour with some strikingly real features, which is why she manages to convince, even in some of the more dramatic paragraphs. Shaanu’s cockiness goes hand-in-hand, we find out later, with a mix of chivalry and reckless courage, reminiscent of actual young men in the armed forces. When his best friend, Raka, is lying in the hospital severely wounded, Raka’s distraught wife, Juhi, entreats Shaanu to go out there and ‘get’ the Pakistanis. He goes into battle and does risky manoeuvres, even crashing his Gnat into a Pakistani Sabre in a final, reckless bid for revenge. Of course, there is no moral exploration of this attempted suicide attack. Nor a pause to ponder the young man’s psychological state. But this isn’t that kind of book.

Is the incident believable? It is, partly because of the earlier interaction between Juhi and Shaanu, but more so because young men in the armed forces have a closer-than-family relationship with their brothers-in-arms. Chauhan, being an ‘army brat’ as she calls herself in the author’s bio, uses this well.

Later chapters see Tinka and Shaanu thrown together under incredible circumstances, but the more starry-eyed reader might simply see this as lovers’ destiny. A more literary reader would not be so satisfied with the story in the second half.

But for that reader there are pieces of writing that satisfy. For instance when Shaanu first flies his Gnat, Chauhan writes eloquently; ‘Shaanu loved how small and light it was. Old Kuch Bhi Carvalho who tended to get mystic-romantic when very drunk, had once told him that fighter pilots don’t strap themselves into their planes, they strap their planes onto themselves, like soldiers in the old days used to strap their armour onto their bodies. The Gnat is an extension of you, he had told Shaanu, his dark eyes gleaming manically. Its sides are your sides, its belly, your belly. Together, you are Baaz.’

So, the writing flies.