Harper Collins. 2017
Pp 430 | ? 399
A gripping tale of human relationships laced with patriotic heroism
‘You’ve made everything complicated when it’s actually so simple! They’re our enemy and we’re their enemy and we fight each other till somebody wins!’
But this is too much for Tinka. She scrambles to her feet, clutching her bedsheet around her.
‘Nobody wins,’ she says passionately, ‘That’s the point. Everybody loses!’
Ishaan Faujdaar aka Shaanu, a ‘baawda’ of a boy from Chakkahera, Haryana has known this “simple truth” as a universal dictum. He has learnt to fight his battles aggressively and fly his fighter plane ‘baaz-ke-maaphik.’ (12) Walks in the photographer-turned-model-turned-journalist Tehmina Dadyseth aka Tinka, (for this is Chauhan’s novel and there will be a love story) with her slight American accent and her ‘people are people’ (199) world view and Chauhan’s new novel becomes a battlefield quite literally. It is only by the end of the novel that the realization of the hollowness of these two clashing views, glares right in their faces.
Set in the time of impending 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the creation of Bangladesh, Anuja Chauhan’s Baaz beautifully and brilliantly straddles between a war novel and a romantic comedy. One finds as many Gnats and MIGs and Sukhois flying and fighting in the sky as many dinner dates, ball dances, stolen kisses and warm hugs strewn across the novel and not to forget the Aradhana reference - ‘mere sapno ki rani kab aaegi tu’- as if surreptitiously telling Bollywood what not to do while writing/making a war-love story. Evidently, in the novel, Mrs. Pomfret while addressing the women of Air Force Wives Welfare Association says, ‘No weeping! ... No whining! Remember, this is real life, not Sangam or Aradhana in which IAF officers die ekdum phataak se, after getting the heroine pregnant. Statistics show that eight out of ten IAF Fighters survive war….’ (236)
However, this is not a disclaimer of any sort as this romance has the best of the ingredients to become a great Hindi masala film of all the romances that Chauhan has penned so far. The boy is a grey-eyed superman capable of flying all kinds of planes - even the ones which he has not been trained for, and girl an epitome of beauty and glamour walking straight out from a freesia fantasy. There is a damsel in distress and the knight on a shining motorbike who swoops in to save her and also hums the stubbed lyrics of a song. He startles the heroine by appearing in a party while she has been almost confirmed of his death. The lovers ask that over-asked cheesy question ‘…what am I of yours exactly?’ (410) (Bollywood has done it so many times and quite ostensibly with Hum Aapke Hain Kaun?) Despite of all this, the novel does not degenerate into becoming a shoddy penny dreadful. This is where Chauhan’s genius lies. She has a knack of telling a conventional story in a most unconventional way, flashing it with her intelligent sense of humor at (in)appropriate places in her very characteristic Hinglish. She has a narrative style that beckons the reader in the narrow sinews of the plot and leaves them turning pages after pages till the final one. Curiously, if one draws a link between the seemingly popular stories of a very popular writer, Baaz has a striking resemblance of the characters in terms of their background and camaraderie. As told earlier, Shaanu hails from a village, his ‘English is very basic’ (22) and ‘za’ is a proper word in his vocabulary (as in Two one za Two, Two two za four) (108) and then there is Tinka, a dissenter (like all Chauhan’s women) who has a Miranda House education and a green card. They fall for each other but not in a half unconvincing way. The romance pulsates with life and characters do not remain the half baked figment of a faulty imagination. Ishaan Faujdar befriends Madan Subbiah aka Maddy and Rakesh Aggrawal aka Raks at Air Force Flying College in Jodhpur and soon they become bffs cum minions who share the thrills and travails of their life and also the battlefield together. So much so that they can kill hundreds of Paki fighters if even one of them lays a finger on their friends and that too sans the melodrama of tears and stereotypical bromance. Perhaps, the very popular writers who blame the serious readers for being snobs and elitist and what not ist for hating their books should take a leaf or two from this novel in the very literal sense of the phrase. As those readers do not resent reading popular fiction but they do gasp at the plummeting level of IQ that has come to be sadly associated with badly told stories that pass under the tag of popular fiction.
The master stroke of the novel is the depth and sympathy with which Chauhan creates her characters. Each of her character is a gem in the glittering crown of Baaz, be it Hosannah ‘Kuch Bhi’ Carvalho, Sneha behenji, Kainaz Dadyseth, Juhi Gupta-Aggrawal, Dilsher Singh or even Chimman Singh. For instance, the thoughtfulness that is exhibited in creating the character of Sneha is worth noticing. She tells her brother loud and clear, ‘No, you don’t,’…. You believe some women are superior to men. Just the rich and educated ones…from big families….You are trying to patao her by acting very modern, but actually Shaanu Bhaisaab you are not. You have one set of rules for girlfriends and another set for sisters….’ (175-176) Shaanu till then had complacently believed that he believes ‘women are superior to men.’ (175) Though the reason for Sneha’s outburst is more than one and Ishaan never in the novel appears to do what he is accused of, but the moment she raises the question, it highlights so many of our hypocrisies that we unknowingly harness.
Baaz is a leap in Chauhan’s corpus, for she turns her gaze from her Zoya, Jinni, Dabbu and Bonu like heroines and decides to make a Shaanu her hero. Shaanu, though fits in the gorgeous mould she usually crafts for her men and is bestowed with the same good looks of Nikhil or Zain, or Dylan or Samar, he is a hero of the novel for more than that. Chauhan has an interesting way to endear her characters and their stories to her readers by pet naming them and they indeed fall for it. Baaz is a gripping tale of human relationships and an attempt to see them through a high held lens of patriotic heroism that has rendered it a certain je ne sais quoi (to put it in Maddy way) that makes it a delightful homage to the men in uniform, in a classic Anuja Chauhan’s style.