Jacob Hills is a racy thriller set in an elite war college. Author Ismita Tandon Dhanker insists the book does not tarnish the ethos of the Army in any way. Rather, it is about individual choices
Ismita Tandon Dhankher’s novel Jacob Hills (Harper Collins, Rs. 299) is a breathless thriller that takes a long hard look at the Army. Set in an elite war college in a hill station, Jacob Hills follows the lives of officers and their not very gentlemanly lives, which seems to include a wide spectrum of vices including paedophilia, wife battering and adultery.
Describing herself as “a lesser known poet”, Ismita explains: “When I started doing poetry six years ago, it was as much a shock to me as to those around me. Eventually, I figured that joy of penning a poem is far greater than it being appreciated. The rationale behind the title is that someday a lesser know poet’s poems are going to be very well known and hopefully while I am still alive.”
The Pune-based author says: “Jacob Hills is the result of an hour long chat with this absolutely adorable, globe-trotter aunt, who has more stories in her head than hair on most people’s head. And then there’s my life line, a retired General, who’s a true friend, philosopher and guide to me.”
Ismita set the book in the 80s because: “I know this world. I grew up in it, so, it was fairly easy to bring out the nuances of that time. Our society was truly regressive in the Eighties. World over the hippy movement was on a roll since the Sixties but in India sex outside marriage with all its permutation and combinations was still taboo.”
The 33-year-old insists the “book in no way tarnishes the ethos of the Army and the ideals it stands for. It only attempts to bring forth the choices that certain individuals chose to exercise to fulfil their personal needs and further their professional agenda. The Seventies and Eighties was a period of great sexual repression and as is the case with any kind of repression, it burst forth.”
The novel has a long note in the beginning, which Ismita says “Was done out of the selfish reason of paying tribute to my father and the organization he served diligently for 36 years. He loved his soldiers. To even lose one was so painful and there were many who never made it back, while he was serving in Sri Lanka, militant-ridden Punjab and Kashmir.”
Of what her dad would have to say of the book, Ismita says: “He isn’t with us now but I am sure wherever he is, he is proud of me. Also, had he been alive, he would have had some very interesting things to add, like more facts instead of mere fiction.”
Jacob Hills is divided into chapters and is told from multiple points of view. The reason for this Ismita says is, “In real life each one of us has a voice, it may be strong, weak, faint, loud but it’s there. I know no other way of telling a story more convincingly than bringing out all these voices, their likes, dislikes of each other, their disgusts and dreams, hopes and desires.”
Denying that George and Eva are the protagonists, the author says: “There is no single protagonist or supporting characters in my story; they are all protagonist carrying the story forward. Consider this, we are the protagonists of our life and just because our lives intertwine with those around doesn’t mean that they are less significant or central to our or their story.”
Each chapter starts with a character sketch—literally an illustration. Ismita explains this saying: “The character illustrations bring out the character quirks.”
Of the research for the novel, Ismita says: “I needed to create a military set up, where I could contain and control the characters in such a way that a layman could understand the complicated working of the Army and its hierarchy.
That was the biggest challenge.” Next up is a prequel to Jacob Hills and The Song of the Sufi Masroof, a book of photographs and poems. As Ismita says: “Poetry is like the hum of a bumble bee, it resonates, while, prose is sheer hard work.”