Fifty pages into Anuja Chauhan’s newest novel Baaz, boy meets girl when he is tasked with retrieving the runaway damsel from her Bombay-bound train. He is to deliver her into the safe hands of her relative – his chief instructor at the IAF academy. A little before the handover is supposed to take place, they talk.
“Chimman Singh didn’t want me to join the Air Force,” he tells her. “I had to sneak off, just like you.”
“Who’s Chimman Singh?”
“My mother’s husband”
She gurgles appreciatively. “Nice. I think I’m going to start calling my father by his first name too.”
“Go for it,” he advises her. “Such a peaceful, powerful feeling it gives you, matlab ki, I can’t explain! Anyway, I cycled 85 kilometres to the admission test venue. And when I cycled back, after getting selected, mind you –”
Her eyes widen. “Where do you live?”
“In a vill –” He stops, then continues carefully, “In a large town. In Haryana. We’re zamindars. Anyway, I told Chimman Singh the good news, thinking he’d be so proud and all, but he just ignored me.”
His tone is light as he recounts the incident, but his eyes are bitter.
“What a dog,”” she says warmly.
Shaanu looks at her with more approval now. Maybe this girl isn’t that bad, after all. Sure, she’s strange, more boy than girl – whoever’s heard of a girl risking her reputation and running away from home, not to marry a boyfriends or become an actress but to put an end to war!
Reader, he helps her escape.
Most of the book’s action is set in podunk Kalaiganga, a fictional air force base located near Kolkata, with a climactic detour into Dacca. Our hero is Ishaan Faujdaar, a red-blooded jat from Chakkahera, Haryana who, as a child, baits trains. He plants himself in the path of the ‘pulsating iron monster’ and jumps away at the last possible second because he loves his heart “going dhookk-dhookk-dhookk.” Later, he joins the Indian air force for pretty much the same reason.
In describing him, Chauhan falls victim to a malady that plagues the romance genre: the Hero’s Beautiful Eyes Syndrome. You can make a drinking game of the number of times Ishaan’s “curiously slate-grey eyes” are mentioned and have yourself a merry intoxicated evening. In the interest of equal-opportunity clichés, the female counterpart of this malady is deployed as well: the Heroine’s Improbably Exotic Smell Syndrome. At the meet-cute described at the beginning, Tehmina Dadyseth steps off a long train journey smelling like a “flower border in the springtime” and will continue to smell like various pleasant variations on the theme even in the middle of a warzone.
Sparks fly between the two, despite the fact that she is a wealthy peacenik Parsi from Miranda House and he is a Haryanvi yokel who has bought wholeheartedly into the ideology of militaristic nationalism. The push-and-pull of belief systems and magnetic attraction continues against the backdrop of escalating conflict between West Pakistan, East Pakistan/Bangladesh and India with the USSR, China and the US hovering backstage in this game of strategic alliances. History takes its course, as it must, but the narrative throws a googly where the fate of the lovers is concerned. You will not see it coming.
Chauhan has truly written one of the finest meet-cutes I have either read or seen in contemporary romance. Our 2017 selves will have to forego anachronistic standards of #wokeness to truly appreciate the circumstances under which Tehmina and Ishaan meet and form a bond. The problematic abduction, her feminist indignation, their brief exchange of familial details, the slow dawn of empathy, and his decision to help her escape in order to live the life she wants, risking his supervisors’ wrath, sure he will never see her again; this moment is eminently Bollywood-ready. Unfortunately, it goes downhill from here.
The central debate between Tehmina and Ishaan is one that has surfaced with renewed vigour in the national discourse – if one can call Twitter-rants and angry news studio shouting that. Tehmina’s principled resistance to war is sharpened by personal tragedy: the death of her fauji brother. Ishaan sympathises but can’t quite see how serving one’s nation can be anything but a case of black-and-white, right-or-wrong morality. The two do this dialogic dance until it gets tediously repetitive while going absolutely nowhere; most of these debates, in fact, end either with one party flouncing off in anger or a mutual attack of the hormones. Take this scene, for instance, which happens right after the two share their first kiss:
“It’s an air strike, isn’t it,” she says hopelessly. “It’s the Pakistanis.”
“Yeah,” he replies without looking at her, his eyes scanning the skies. “They picked a Friday knowing we’d be off-guard, thinking they’ll never strike on their holy day. And this is the hour at which the shift changes at our signals unit.”His voice is reluctantly admiring. “Smart bastards.”
She glares at him, suddenly angry.
“You sound so happy,” she says accusingly.
“Huh?” Shaanu denies this, his eyes still on the starry sky. “No, no, not happy.”
“Excited, then,” she says hotly. “You want to go up there in your stupid little plane and kill people.”
“What?” He is genuinely bewildered. “This is what I’ve been training for, for five whole years! Would you prefer if I pulled a long face or shook with fear?”
“That would at least prove you’re not an unfeeling robot!”
“Oh, I have feelings,” he says meaningfully
There is also an issue with the gender dynamics. Chauhan is usually a wonderful counterpoint to the easy sexism found in the books of the spectre that haunts commercial fiction in India. So it’s quite disheartening to see yet another literary relationship where the hero pulls a “myself coming from village area” on the hip, urban and urbane heroine, as if her privilege excuses his “rustic” misogyny. Sample this:
Her eyes flash.
“You don’t know anything about my brother,” she retorts. “He joined the army, not because he was patriotic, but because my dad made him. Dad was obsessed with the Army! We had tank-shaped birthday cake on every single one of Jimmy’s birthdays! Ugly green thing with six Swiss rolls for wheels and a long cream wafer sticking out of it as a cannon barrel! What kind of sick man orders a cake like that on a small child’s birthday?”
At least he ordered a cake, Shaanu thinks privately. We’ve never had a bakery ka birthday cake in our life! And we found out about birthday parties only from that filmi song where Jeetendra wears a tux and sings ‘Happy Birthday to Sunita’ to a white-frock-wearing Babita on the piano. This rich girl is clearly spoilt.
It’s never a good sign if your romantic hero says lines that would be at home in the mouth of Arjun Kapoor on the silver screen.
The strength of Chauhan’s books, arguably, lies not in the love stories but the peripheral stuff: the delightful use of Indian English and Hindi idiom, her fantastic sense of comedy, her precise grasp of family dynamics and her sense of atmosphere that almost make her books into informal social histories.
The leap of joy one feels at the non-italicisation of words like cheemta, gadha, arhar, gudiya, behenji, baawadi never gets old. In an industry beset by linguistic politics, where prestige is seen to be conferred only by international literary awards and lists, Chauhan makes very clear just who it is she is writing for. Those words belong in her narrative, requiring no annotations. This is also true of her frequent use of the English idiom so unique to Indians (‘this-thing’, ‘then what’, ‘I think-so’) and her phonetic rendering of peculiar yet instantly recognisable pronunciations (‘pie-lutt’, ‘lettyoose’).
Anuja Chauhan credits a lot of sources in her laundry list of acknowledgments – a combination of scholarly works like Eagles over Bangladesh and the oral narratives of fauji family members – and all that investigation shows. The glamorous world of IAF officers – foxtrotting in exclusive colonial clubs, performing daredevil stunts in MiGs and Gnats, high on adrenaline and idealism and brotherhood – is brought alive in a way no history textbook can match, no matter how meticulously researched. You will be hearing the clink of champagne glasses, the rustle of cocktail dresses and saris, and the ghost of full-throated male laughter long after you have closed the book.
Neha Yadav is currently pursuing a PhD in postmodern literature from BITS, Goa.