First action heroes

Sanjay Bahadur  

Rain comes down in gusty sheets. The spines of shrubs claw at hands and faces. Weapons, backpacks and exhaustion weigh down Major Vyom Pokhriyal and his Black Dogs, a team of high-altitude warfare commandos, like sandbags. But, as the staccato burst of machine gun fire rips over the edge of the cliff, the Major and his men based at the foothills of the rugged Pir Panjal range, climb resolutely to the top — to either finish off the deadly terrorists of the Hizbul Mujahideen or die trying.

Sanjay Bahadur, presently Commissioner of Income Tax, Mumbai, weaves a gripping tale of cross-border terror strikes, hostage-taking and valour in the face of the enemy, in his third novel, Bite of the Black Dogs (Hachette India). A second-generation Indian Revenue Service officer, (batch of 1989), Bahadur was raised and educated across India, graduating in Economics from Elphinstone College, Mumbai, where the veiled hero of his book, Brigadier Ajay Pasbola, awarded the Shaurya Chakra for daring hand-to-hand combat with militants in Kashmir, was a classmate.

In a telephone conversation from Mumbai, Bahadur says, “I started writing for the college and Academy magazines; it was a time when civil servants such as Upamanyu Chatterjee were gaining literary ground. Then, a friend sent me a link to an online competition hosted by Oxford Bookstore. I was then in the Ministry of Coal, and there was an incident; I wrote some 2,500 words of what had happened. It was among the top 20 of the 800-odd entries. That turned out to be the first words of my debut novel, The Sound of Water.” The book was published in India, the US and Italy, and long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

Bahadur continued to write on issues not in the public eye. His second book HUL: Cry Rebel! looks at the little-known Santhal Rebellion. “We have made a mark in Indian literary fiction, but, in the international realm, an Indian coming-of-age story or talking about Mumbai’s underbelly has exotic value. We have largely shied away from historical fiction and I deliberately choose to tell stories that are in the news for a day or two and then forgotten. Nearly 50,000 Santhals were butchered by the British, but many know nothing about this. I felt there was a need to write across genres and reveal what lies beneath.”

That is something that Bahadur does with aplomb in his latest book. Bite of the Black Dogs has a defined plotline, is well-researched and the incredible chutzpah of the Special Forces makes Bear Grylls look like a Boy Scout. The rattle of small-arms fire, an encounter in the haze of the hills, men and militants strung out in tight lines across slopes, the smell of fear and the battle cry of hope, crowd the pages of a book that ties up incidents such as the beheadings of foreign nationals by the Al Faran and slaughter of Kashmiri Pandits by militants. It investigates India’s intelligence network across departments, to bring to the reader a cliff-hanger of a novel.

“This was a fantastic story that needed to be told. For an author, what is important is integrity in the writing, even when you can’t reveal all, because the information is classified. In a military thriller, it calls for ensuring that the sidearm of an officer in the Special Forces in 1997 is a Glock. For the lay person it may not matter, but it lends the book authenticity,” says Bahadur, who merged two operations as one, deliberately changed the grid points and drew from his visits to the Commando school, Belgaum, and the Gorkha Training Centre, Shillong.

“Brigadier Pasbola and I have been in touch over the years. The operation that is fictionalised here is the one for which he received the Shaurya Chakra in 1998. Then, I hadn’t thought of writing about it. But, over time, I realised these are stories lost in a news item. No one talks about the huge machinery involved, or the grammar of what it takes to be commandos — how it affects their mind, personal lives, relationships. I needed to humanise this. When we get to the war-mongering, we forget there is often a father, brother or a friend involved,” says Bahadur, on the backbone of his narrative.

The book, which comes at a time of grim attrition in the Valley, sets new standards for candid narratives about the soldiers who inhabit our shadowlands. It also, in the words of a character from the book, tells us why some “don’t know what other life is more worth living than this. Or, worth dying for”.

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 9:45:55 AM |

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