Aizawl, Haflong, Jatinga – these are rare backdrops for an Indian novel, but Anand Ranganathan’s For Love and Honour is that rare novel. In 1966, before the sanitising term ‘collateral damage’ was in vogue, the Indian Air Force bombed areas in Mizoram, including Aizawl, the present capital. The next generation of the Mizos, still struggling for self-determination, led by the Mizo National Front (MNF), grew up in the 1980s, with a conception of India and its army based on those memories. In Delhi, however, patriotic lions refused to own up to their aerial hunt, even when the parliamentarian G G Swell displayed bomb-covers in the Lok Sabha. To this day, the Indian government has not admitted to this instance of aerially bombing people it claims as its own citizens.
Fiction steps in to fill in the gaps in the Indian narrative (the Mizo narrative, is very rich but irrelevant to India), as it did during the French war in Algeria and other instances when the truth had to hit back through invention when facts were suppressed. Though a few decades have passed, Anand Ranganathan must be commended for choosing the setting of the MNF struggle and Indian Army counter-insurgency operations for his fast-paced tale of comradeship, combat, love, lust, jealousy and loyalty.
For Love and Honour starts out with a para-drop gone wrong; its consequences set the rest of the plot in motion. A young captain, wounded in the operation, goes on to become the security manager in the idyllic tea-garden owned by an upper-caste ‘Rai Bahadur’ Bengali. The owner’s daughters and the young captain are charmed by each other’s company, and many of the novel’s dynamics draw strength from the changing nature of this triangular relationship.
The other current of the novel diverges from the captain’s story after a chance discovery of tragic familiarity during the operation. Another officer – half-Mizo in ethnicity but fully Indian in ideology – is changed by this operation and tries to find personal peace and redemption. The pace of events quickens towards an end which is, if only to my taste, a tad gory and blockbuster-worthy.
Ranganathan portrays the super-feudal workings of a tea-plantation superbly. One of the Rai Bahadur’s daughters tells the captain that she loves the French existentialist Emile Zola – “For me, he is God, in the way he writes, in what he writes”. She goes on to describe Zola’s work: “He wrote about the masses, their desires, their struggles. He wrote about the coal miners, about the destitute.”
Her Zola-worship, divorced from the real poverty and exhaustion of workers on her estate, is a keen observation about the apathy that always lurks behind the ideal. The grinding reality and oppressive order in a tea-estate are made even more stark by the sophistication and the light banter between the captain and the two sisters, their ‘comebacks’ over morning tea. Ranganathan achieves this effect par excellence.
About love, however, he writes that ‘it can make you happy. So happy that you don’t care if you are poor, roofless, unclothed, or hungry.’ This is an incredible claim, and as the lines appear in the author’s voice, it made me briefly wonder how much the irony in the previous examples was intended.
Overall, Ranganathan portrays his characters’ layered, emotional lives beautifully. He is not loquacious: ‘Worrying is my reward for being a father’, the Rai Bahadur simply says; or when a couple realise they are in love: ‘One thing they knew, and understood, was that they shouldn’t rush it, that time was a friend.’ His pining lovers, long walks and steamy intimacies are executed masterfully.
Ranganathan also details the conscious mind and the inner conflicts of a thoroughly indoctrinated Indian Army officer. When a major reflects on the reasons that an old friend, who belonged to the MNF, had to die, he considers the MNF to be one of the reasons. But did this army officer ever use similar reasoning about his junior – the captain –losing his hand because of the Indian Army? The reciprocal logic is understated, a hint at the intrinsic ideology that any novel will possess.
It cannot be easy to write about an armed struggle for freedom vis-a-vis a hegemonic power that is ‘one’s own’. Refreshingly, Ranganathan is frank about the devastating effects of counter-insurgency operations, not limited to aerial bombing, on the lives and homes of the people whom the army was meant to be protecting. This is a fairly radical story – however this radicalism has its limits. For, in the end, among all the shades of grey, the Indian grey is lighter than the rest, if only barely so.