Thursday, July 17, 2003

getting high on danger

Investigative journalist Aniruddha Bahal has set a thriller in Kashmir, in a world rife with drugs, arms deals and corruption

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2003).

Bunker 13 by Aniruddha Bahal. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24

"YOU HAVE SOLDIERING BOOTS stuck between your teeth so that you don't maul your tongue . . . You are increasingly feeling that you needn't have got into the shit you find yourself in right now, tabbing 20 kilometres with a 20-kilogram rucksack burning your back." Aniruddha Bahal's novel Bunker 13 begins with a bang.

But soon you tire of the pretentiousness of the second person "you" and wish the author had opted for the first-person instead. Bahal is arguably India's best-known journalist, and his book had the makings of a ripping thriller before he developed more literary aspirations.

Nevertheless, Bunker 13 is a refreshingly different Indian novel. It is one of the few thrillers written in a country that has produced a surfeit of exotica.

Bahal is a co-founder of a news Web site and is famous for his investigative journalism. Posing as arms salesmen, he and a colleague caught on hidden camera Indian Army officers, bureaucrats, a defence minister and a high official of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party accepting bribes. The BJP, however, is still in power, and Bahal's Web site has been shut down. Often fiction says what it's too risky to write as fact.

The author's experiences as an investigative journalist form the backdrop to Bunker 13. The novel's hero, or anti-hero, is Minty Mehta, also known as "MM", a reporter with a reputed national daily. MM has no conscience. He likes expensive whisky, Armani suits and fancy digs. And he gets high on danger. "The bigger the risk, the bigger your addiction."

On behalf of a group of corrupt Indian army officers, he goes to embattled Kashmir where he becomes enmeshed in a plot to sell drugs and weapons to the Russian mafia.

The faction-ridden army has more than one group of corrupt officers and MM is caught in the middle of their fight. The rival faction kidnaps a woman he is dating, his house is trashed and the large quantity of high-grade heroin he has stored in his office's air-conditioner vent is stolen. The book is packed with action: Paratrooping, spying and even an attempt to hijack a train filled with nuclear missiles.

But the story is too fantastic--not because armies and journalists aren't corrupt, but because MM and the gang are involved in so many scams and double-crosses, it's hard to believe the characters don't trip up or overdose sooner.

It is complicated by numerous sub-plots and confused by characters who all speak like MM, in staccato, tough-guy, smart-alec dialogue. "You feel things happening to you. You watch your hair standing on end. You want to rip the leather off the front seat, but Jaspreet's reading your palms, mumbling prophecies about your sexual affairs, playing seduction games that have the firepower of BB guns," muses MM.

The leader of the gang that trashes his apartment sounds similar: "Man, you have enough alcohol in here to launch a polar satellite vehicle. Johnnie Walker Blue Label! The only time I have seen the bottle is in a Star TV ad, the one with that slinky blonde in it that blows her skirt in the ventilator."

Like all good thrillers, this book ends with a startling twist. It suggests that neighbouring Pakistan's infiltrations into Kashmir are more complex and insidious than even the Indian press would have us believe.