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An Indian Realist in a World of Fiction

Aniruddha Bahal

8My ambition for Bunker 13 was to capture the new energy of contemporary India, especially that of the middle-class Hindu elite—an energy reflected in the growth of India’s software industry, textile entrepreneurs before that, the export of doctors and engineers, and the creation of the world’s third largest English-speaking pool of professionals.

Despite its success and erudition, this energetic elite has failed to solve almost any of India’s problems: literacy, health, a burgeoning population, poverty, unemployment. And it is now subconsciously obsessed with its own place in the world. For the members of the elite, the mass of India’s one billion people has in no way been an asset. To the contrary, it has prompted the creation of a smaller club, with perhaps 20 to 25 million members, which could aspire to and acquire all that goes with being a superpower: American trappings along with amnesia about the needs of 95 percent of the population. Hence, the nukes. With the brain power of this elite at your disposal, it’s easier to split the atom than to teach the 400 million illiterate Indians the alphabet. Thus, India is a nuclear state even though it would be difficult to explain to 70 percent of India’s citizens what a nuclear weapon is.

It isn’t that Bunker 13 is about any of these things. It’s that I too am a product of this creamy layer, a generation to whom Oliver Strange’s James Bond-like “Sudden” was a character more inspirational than any the local writers had helped create. The fastest gunslinger in the Wild West, his immortal line in each book of the series would be something like, “Green. The name is Jim Green. They also call me Sudden.” Then everybody in the room would freeze up, including readers. There was also “Ysabel kid.” These westerns were standard staple for boys like me. My ambition for Bunker 13 was to somehow capture the energy and adventure of these books, so important to my generation, which have been notably absent from English fiction out of India.

Indian English fiction is still very much caught up with the past, a hangover of the British period. There’s too much effort to be “literary”—or rather what writers think is literary: wordiness, plots that move at a snail’s pace, colonial obsessions, and what Sir V. S. Naipaul calls “navel gazing.” With the exception of a couple of novels—say, The God of Small Things and The Golden Gate—the primary market for Indian writers in English has been the United Kingdom. And that fact may exercise some influence on choices of material, plot, and tone.

Aberrations apart, for the novel to evolve as a medium, novelists need something to write about. But few Indian writers have. Vikram Seth ditched Stanford and tramped through China and Tibet. Arundhati Roy has engaged and commented upon burning issues of the day, and in so doing has enraged vested interests and, on one occasion, even got the Supreme Court of India arrayed against her. Amitav Ghosh spent many weeks, at great personal risk, with the irregulars fighting the military regime in Burma. These authors’ writing reflects their experiences. All for the good. But apart from these exceptions, I can’t think of any whose work transcends the “literary.”

The English-language fiction writers whose works have lasted and meant the most to me have all been engaged in a generational struggle of some sort. With Hemingway it was the Spanish Civil War and the First World War. Both Salinger and Heller lived through World War II, and Salinger saw some bloody action in Europe. Tom Wolfe traveled with Ken Kesey in the the Merry Pranksters’ bus. Fiction is an art of the imagination, but imagination that is not founded on a substratum of experience is typically shallow and weak.

That’s why 55-odd years of English fiction in independent India has not produced a single character that is part of common lore in the way that Holden Caulfield, Yossarian, Dean Moriarty, or even Bret Easton Ellis’s repulsive Bateman are. This is a serious failing, because the essential power of fiction—think Salinger, Heller, or Hemingway—is precisely to capture a generation or event or city or mood through a character. And this was my ambition in Bunker 13.

Bunker 13 grew out of my experience as an investigative journalist, and contemporary Indian history kept intertwining itself with my novel. Just as my agent was trying to place the novel on the strength of its first 10 chapters, a big border conflict broke out between India and Pakistan. This was the Kargil-Drass skirmish of 1999, and from covering the Cricket World Cup I nosedived into Kashmir for a few weeks in the fag end of the war.

Many reporters covering the war did so at great personal risk, especially from shells fired by Pakistani artillery. A few of us had close calls, with shells landing at spots we’d vacated just moments earlier. The Kargil-Drass Highway was littered with burned-out cars. Pakistani scouts could keep an eye on patches of road on the Indian side and call for fire the moment they saw traffic that looked important enough. One journalist, Prabhat Shanglu, was chased across five kilometers by Pakistani artillery. The gunners spotted his jeep from the high peaks and targeted it—just for fun. I think in many ways he enjoyed the thrill, though he obviously was a bit shaken. Experiences like these gave Bunker 13’s main character, MM, an authenticity he could not have had otherwise, as the book takes him into Kashmir with the Special Forces of the Indian Army. MM—a border-jogging journalist with criminal motivations that eventually are revealed to be something of a delusionary tactic—is deeply involved with the military as crime and corruption, and his motivations for pushing certain stories, are multilayered and revealed in phases.

But more than anything Bunker 13 is informed by my experiences in a media company started by two friends and myself called Tehelka, an Urdu word literally translated as “making waves.” In May 2000, Tehelka made an undercover investigation into match-fixing in international cricket. But the big story came in March of 2001, when my colleague Mathew Samuel and I broke the story of Operation West End, our sting operation to expose corruption in defense procurement in the ruling Indian establishment. Essentially, we had pretended to be representatives of a British defense firm peddling handheld thermal imagers to the Indian army. We followed the gravy train from a clerk upwards, bribing our way through to the very top of the establishment. Our story lead to the resignations of George Fernandes, the defense minister, Bangaru Laxman, president of the ruling BJP party, and Jaya Jaitly, president of the Samta Party, a partner in the ruling coalition. The army launched inquiries into several officers, two of whom held the rank of Major General. The investigations are still going on and courtmartial proceedings appear likely.

Here real-life script was following what happened with army officers in Bunker 13, albeit the corruption was of a different kind. The government launched a commission of inquiry after the opposition forced the issue (Parliament remained closed for many days because of opposition protests), and one of the commission’s ideas was to explore why our fledgling media outfit did the story! Members of the government imputed all kinds of motives to us—that we were in league with the Congress, the main opposition party; that we were agents for ISI, the Pakistan intelligence agency; that we were aligned with particular business companies; and the grandest theory of all, that we undertook the story for gain in the stock markets! According to this convoluted theory, we knew the markets would fall once we broke the story and stood to gain immensely because of the bear position of our principal investor.

That story died down when the markets rose after we broke the story; the fall came almost three weeks later and had much to do with the global dotcom bust and certain events in the Indian stock markets. There was huge media support for us after our office was raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation (on the pretext that poaching articles could be found there), and when I was arrested in August 2002 on charges of manhandling a CBI officer. To round matters out I spent about 40 days on the witness stand, answering questions from 40 hostile lawyers. I lost my temper on the stand when some of them insinuated that the advance for Bunker 13 was in fact illicit money that I had generated abroad and was now laundering by channeling it back to India through the publishing houses of Faber and FSG! It all could have come out of Bunker 13.

Since all this happened while I was writing Bunker 13, I thought about incorporating the stock-market theory, say, or an angle on the video tapes, and one fine day in a fit of energy I wrote a chapter weaving in bits of both. I could hardly wait for it all to come out and see the reaction of the people who had been gunning for us. In the end I deleted the chapter, not out of lack of courage but simply because there was too much legal trouble already and I didn’t want some publicity seeker or mischief maker dragging Bunker 13 through the courts just to keep me bogged down and harassed. Everything is possible in India! Adding the chapter would have been quite some way of getting back at the bad guys. But it would also have appropriated reality in a way that would compromise the fiction. Fiction as a weapon of revenge against the establishment wouldn’t be as lethal if it were a cut-and-paste job between autobiography and imagination.

The fact is that journalism has far greater impact on society than fiction can ever dream to have. It can change the political destinies of emerging Third World democracies. Consider the exit of Joseph Estrada as president of the Philippines because of stories of his personal corruption. Fiction can never hope to have that power. It can guide and inspire but never acquire the immediacy that journalism brings to issues. A novel can rival the Bible but it can never obtain the impetus of a television image or a newspaper headline.

What fiction can do, however, is compress the whole mood of a period into 200 pages: Dispatches or The Quiet American can give the aroma of Vietnam to those of us who weren’t there. I hope Bunker 13 similarly captures a sense of modern India, its ambitions and energy. I hope it sets off a mini-debate in India on the Kashmir issue, the use of the army to quell insurgencies, corruption, the state of current espionage capability of the Indian state, and maybe the media itself.

But some of the beauty of fiction lies in the fact that it may transcend such hopes: that it may acquire a different meaning for readers than what the writer intended. There is, after all, a big disconnect between India’s image in the West—snake charmers, elephants, temples, the Taj Mahal—and real life on the ground. So perhaps Bunker 13 will strike American readers in a way I can’t now imagine. <

Aniruddha Bahal is founder and editor-in-chief of Cobrapost.com, an Indian news website. He can be contacted at Bunker13@cobrapost.com.


Excerpt from Bunker 13

The Mossies [Kashmiris] organize amid the slaughter and go for a counterassault along the right bank. They try to beat lead with lead, following the access lanes the assault teams were using. They chant their battle hymns. You can hear them over the din of the automatics, though they keep getting feebler and feebler. You have been too busy following the massacre below to notice two Mossies climbing the bank on your side. Your bodyguards are busy giving covering fire to the line formation on your side of the bank and are too far to your left to have intercepted them even if they had noticed.

The first time you notice their presence is when the soldiers on the right bank start picking the dust on the embankment below you.

You see a turban and then a face red with blood. Then you see the brown eyes, and they belong to someone very young, maybe eighteen, perhaps younger.

You feel like helping him up, a solitary jab of sanity in the murder around you, but then you see the terror in his eyes. You realize what you look like. The threat you represent. And even as the Mossie is trying to raise the barrel of his automatic fire from down below and level it at your chest, you see what you have to do, for there is no time to explain to him the ridiculousness of your position. You have no option but to pull the trigger, and then you see a big empty hole where once you saw a pair of brown eyes.

Your bodyguards pick off the Mossie below you.

From Bunker 13, © 2003 by Aniruddha Bahal. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.


Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review



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