At a time when any attempt to start a conversation about India’s Armed Forces and nationalism has the potential to descend into war-mongering and accusations of being anti-national, a work of fiction may have a more powerful role to play than hysterical TV debates. Anuja Chauhan, whose books are known for their dishy heroes and witty dialogue, sets Baaz against the backdrop of the 13-day India-Pakistan war in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh.
Chauhan’s protagonist, Ishaan Faujdaar, from the fictional village of Chakkahera in Haryana, has an uneasy relationship with his stepfather and dreams of taking to the skies and defending his country. At his air force station near Calcutta, he is loved as much for his good looks as for his not-so-perfect English and sheer cockiness. Chauhan sketches out the camaraderie between the officers, and the petty rivalries over who will pilot the bigger plane, with affection and humour (sometimes politically incorrect).
Ishaan has no doubts about why he does what he does, so Chauhan introduces complexity and romance into his life in the shape of pacifist Tehmina Dadyseth, who abhors violence and visits refugee camps to take photographs and teach children to dance. Like some of Chauhan’s other heroines, Tehmina is a privileged do-gooder and the writer has taken the right decision in not making this her story. From the beginning, Ishaan is the soul of this tale.
Chauhan’s ear for dialogue has always been the most pleasurable part of reading her. The puns and wisecracks keep coming, even when the men are flying bomb-laden planes, looking for the enemy.
Chauhan brings out the desperation and euphoria of the short but costly war that is an indelible part of our history, and it is obvious that she has done her research. It is a pity then that towards the end, the story descends into farce, with questionable decision making and wild conspiracy theories taking centre stage. While this dilutes the emotional intensity, it will not stop the reader from frantically turning the pages.
It is important to appreciate what Chauhan is trying to do: Ishaan’s fellow Gnat pilots are called Janardhan, Gonsalves and Mansoor, nicknamed Jana-Gana-Mana. She even sneaks in a tongue-in cheek “our soldiers are dying at the border” accusation.
In the age of jingoism, Chauhan has written an entertaining book about the defenders of our borders that can appeal to all readers.