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05.05.2017

We refreshed the Amazon page for Anuja Chauhan’s new blockbuster novel a dozen times a day this week, and downed it in a single hot gulp when it arrived. About three-quarters in, though, we couldn’t help but recall how Srinath Raghavan paraphrases the 18th Brumaire in his amazing book on the 1971 war of Bangladesh, also the backdrop for Baaz: people make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.

Baaz is an old-fashioned intervention in our ongoing episode of Subcontinental chest-thumping. It’s a romantic adventure that stars a peacenik and a proud soldier, both freedom-loving pluralists who fall for each other while questioning the role of violence in making the world a better place. Reading it is a little like watching an updated Aradhana and a little like seeing your Nehruvian parents argue at the dinner table. There’s some ‘Mauka Mauka’ jingoism here, but also more than a dash of ‘Aman Ki Asha’ campaigning.

If you like the sound of this and can hand-wave away its real-life circumstances, you’re in for a spot of breezy fun. Chauhan is a magician who can make romantic comedy out of general elections and give the cricket World Cup an energy boost. Baaz, however, forsakes these for another Indian ritual: war at the border.

Chauhan’s time machine takes us back a couple of generations, to a humanitarian crisis spilling over from East Pakistan into West Bengal. Rivers run red with blood; armed forces and militias commit unspeakable crimes on non-combatants; the streets of Calcutta are overrun with starving refugees.

Into this mayhem enters anti-war flower child Tehmina Dadyseth, a photojournalist who teaches orphans to dance to ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’ — what did we say? — in a Bengali refugee camp. Rich, sleek, charming ‘Tinka’ is a catch for any boy, especially once she achieves celebrity status thanks to an impulse decision to pose in a bikini for an ad.

Reading "Baaz" is a little like watching an updated Aradhana and a little like seeing your Nehruvian parents argue at the dinner table. There’s some ‘Mauka Mauka’ jingoism here, but also more than a dash of ‘Aman Ki Asha’ campaigning.

But the real Liril Girl of this book is Chauhan’s flawless hero — the first of her male protagonists to outshine their women, and the first you’re meant not just to love, but to worship. Cocky Haryanvi villager Ishaan Faujdaar is a flying ace with grey eyes and a butt like marble. He’s likeable, capable and very touchable (ref. the evocative Chauhan-ism “a highly touchable chest”); a thrill-seeker who’s also somehow a virginal halwa-puri eating sweetheart. We’d totally cast Anushka Sharma to play him in the movie.

Baaz doesn’t quite match Chauhan’s earlier novels wisecrack for wisecrack. Instead, she reins in her irrepressible jokey-ness and perfectly pitched Hindi-English for action-adventure sequences (some set during real life battles) and deft set-up for an epic dénouement. Characters of varied nationality, age and gender wander in and out of the narrative, playing smart, restrained little roles. Even the villain of the piece, a cadaverous Pakistani composite of generals Niazi and Tikka Khan named "Nikka Khan," makes but an irreverent splash on the page.

At its best, Baaz reminds us of the sweet pieties with which we disagreed with one another before TV debates and trolling took over. It’s also a good — and perhaps timely — reminder of why everyone else in South Asia hates us.

It may be easy for many Indian readers to breeze past Chauhan’s fictionalised backdrops of refugee camps filled with the mutilated children of occupied Dhaka. No matter which political party we support, we're used to thinking of 1971 as India's "good war." But that horror and its associated crimes took place in living memory. They don’t quite succeed in forming the majestic stage-dressing for flirty Indian banter that Chauhan may have intended them to be.

Inadvertently, Baaz proposes something about who we are now, not just who we — or at least our nation-building mothers and fathers — once were. Whether or not we chose to enter that bloody conflict, we’re still wresting its history for ourselves, just dying to be the stars of the whole show.

Getting there: 'Baaz' is available to buy online here

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