The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 21, 2003

Fast-paced, but Bunker 13 stretches credibility
Aradhika Sekhon

Bunker 13
by Aniruddha Bahal. Faber and Faber. Pages: 356. 4.99.

Bunker 13THIS book is for reader who enjoys spy stories with plenty of guns and ammunition, drugs nexus and some dark hints about illegal activities in the Army. If, on the contrary, murders in the sky, while para-jumping at that, and inexplicable murders in the National Defence Academy and other such activities don't excite him and he is looking for something more than a desi James Bond book, he'd better search further up the bookshelves.

Aniruddha Bahal, cashes in on his Tehelka fame and, with impunity, conjures up fictitious army units posted in the border areas of the Valley. To be fair to him, these are supposed to be the 'rogue' units' of the only remaining responsible institution in the country. These units, he tells us, are involved in drug peddling (drugs packed in crates, mind you) and gunrunning to an extent that can blow the reader's mind. And if the reader has not been able to completely suspend disbelief, then traces of doubt are bound to remain about the honesty of the organisation that has recently been under media and public scrutiny, not least of all because of the Tehelka disclosures.


This feeling of doubt is emphasised when Bahal very convincingly makes out a case for the soldier not necessarily being patriotic. In fact he seems to imply that the soldier's motivations are to the contrary. "The army fights at the company level on personal bonds. Flimsy constructs like nationalism mean nothing to us. You hit at that bond and you have a bunch of angry men to deal with who suddenly go about asking themselves what this rigmarole is all about? Why do they have to risk their lives for a nation that's insulated to their hardships? Who's skimming the milk and where's their share of the cream? It's certainly more than the basic 2,000 rupees take-home plus C-grade rations that include 8 eggs a week. Would you even risk a single finger for that?" Assertions like, "Once your morality gets the right hook, your values become more fluid and malleable. Even at the command level, your reaction towards unacceptable behavior becomes softer and more understanding... what you start doing is latching on to anything that dehumanizes the enemy and dilutes your sense of responsibility" reaffirm the feeling that the Army is an organisation with feet of clay and scare the reader into wondering whether all this is true.

Add to this the descriptions of army officers who salivate for foreign cigarettes and booze and preen self-importantly at the thought of appearing on the BBC, of hostility between two Army units posted in the same area and the murder and mayhem resulting from this rivalry and of officers who are not above condoning the rape of the helpless village girls by their soldiers after a 'cordon-and-search' operation. All of this gives but a taste of the concoction that Bahal has created in the cocktail-shaker of his imagination.

Anyhow, the story moves forward. Lots of military terms come your way. Obviously, the author knows the nitty-gritty and the technicalities of it all and can give information on varied topics ranging from army operations to terrain to logistics, ammunition, arms deals and aircraft, nuclear weapons and the works. The homework has been well done and fast-paced action of the book may even make up for the sweeping statements that the author makes.

To add to the masala, there is also a 'beautiful babe' ready to be seduced by the protagonist. Come to think of it, there is more than one, and their sole purpose seems to be to titillate the reader. M.M, the hero, and who is, in addition to being a journalist, an ex-cadet from the NDA and an undercover RAW agent and a double agent for the "Mossies" (read Pakistanis), deals in heroin (procured by the aforementioned 'rogue' Army units) with Russian dealers. Whew! That's some spice there!

The tone of the book, however, is novel. There is a cynical stance to the whole narrative, a kind of bored, yet involved, standoffishness, which is fascinating. It is hard to say whether this is the writer's or the protagonist's attitude, but it does imply a rakishness, a 'devil-may-care-because-I- certainly-don't' feeling, that is certainly interesting.

Bahal seems to have taken it upon himself to "clear the picture" for the reader, be it the picture of the Army bunker or the newspaper office. That he decides to clear it with rather acidic eyedrops instead of soothing rosewater, is, he seems to say, the reader's problem.