Name: Baaz Author: Anuja Chauhan Publisher: HarperCollins Pages: 432 Price: Rs 399
To call Anuja Chauhan’s Baaz solely a love story is an underestimation. It is much more complex, weaving in tropes of nationalism and identity politics. The novel pulls us into the riveting world of the Indian Air Force. It is set in 1970s India, on the precipice of the Bangladesh Liberation War, when the country was heaving with a heightened sense of nationalism, enmeshed with hatred for Pakistan.
In Chauhan’s novel, an IAF instructor, Hosannah Carvalho doles out wisdom to his trainees saying, “Aggression and awareness are the keywords to being a good Fighter. Never let your guard down! Baaz-ke-maaphik, you shoot up, up, up!’” The phrase, Baaz-ke-maaphik, recurs in the book, referring to Chauhan’s charismatic, daredevil protagonist, Ishaan Faujdaar. Affectionately called ‘Baaz’ by his comrades, he has the ability to maneuver his Gnat fighter jet with the swiftness of an eagle. Ishaan, a handsome man in his 20s, with “unusual grey eyes”, is a soldier trained to protect his country; designed to kill. “I won’t hesitate if I have to kill some Paki soldiers — and I won’t be racked by guilt afterwards either! They’re enemies of India, and it’s my job to kill them,” he says.
In contrast, stands the flamboyant Tehmina Dadyseth — daughter of Major General Ardisher Dadyseth and sister of a fallen soldier — who finds her calling as a war photographer. While Baaz has trained for war all his life, she is fiercely against it. While Baaz hails from a small village in Haryana, Tehmina was born in the United States. While Baaz is an active participant in the war, she is the empathetic healer, teaching dance to refugee children. When Baaz refers to himself as a fighter belonging to the “most elite wing of the defence forces”, Tehmina retorts, “The most refined killers, you mean.”
It’s the clever juxtaposition of their worlds — more importantly, ideologies — that is the heart of the novel. While the characters are worlds apart, there is an uncanny attraction that draws them to each other. They are meant to be.
While the book functions as a tribute to the steadfast Indian faujis, it also offers a much-needed insight into the brutality of war and those caught in it. Eight-year-old Prasanto, whose family is butchered; and 13-year-old Mamuni who is raped by Razakars (the anti-Bangladesh force assembled by the Pakistan Army) are peripheral characters whose stories are sharp reminders of how debilitating war can be.
Dialogues are Chauhan’s strong point; each character has an idiosyncratic way of speaking, which is the charm of the novel — from Ishaan who, in his Jat accent, mistakenly calls Altamont Road “Ultimate Road”, to the refugee children adorably referring to the song, Mere sapno ki rani as “Geetu” because “mere sapno ki rani kab aayee Geetu”.
War is a challenging subject to write about, but Chauhan succeeds in writing it in a manner which is light and not too imposing on the reader. Baaz is unputdownable, reflecting the discomfiting realities of our time.
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