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The Rediff Interview/Aniruddha Bahal
May 30, 2003
When you read a book described by Britain's Booklist magazine as a 'novel of high-tech weaponry and hedonism which should be a summer sensation,' you may wonder if Dale Brown and Sidney Sheldon have written it together.
Bunker 13 is by one of India's best-known journalists Aniruddha Bahal. While it is fast-paced, sensational and full of guilty pleasures, it is also hailed as a strong work of fiction.
In fact, the novel is compared to Norman Mailer's landmark The Naked and the Dead. Bunker 13 will be published June 2 in America by Farrar Straus Giroux, which publishes Nobel Laureates including Nadine Gordimer (Loot) and by Faber & Faber in England.
Bahal's 'novel reminds me of The Naked and The Dead, Norman Mailer's literary breakthrough,' wrote Burhan Wazir in the British newspaper The Observer.
'Mailer's fictionalized account of the taking of the Pacific islands during the Second World War broke new ground in 1948 with its rough and ready military vernacular. Much like The Naked and The Dead, Bunker 13 is elevated by first-hand authenticity; it is no less gritty and the text is similarly revealing about the truth of war,' Wazir wrote.
Bahal, who broke the story about corruption in India's defense establishment in March 2000 along with colleagues at tehelka.com, is in America to promote his novel.
Bahal, who 'bribed' defense ministry officials to make Indians aware of corruption in high places, has created an interesting protagonist in his novel: a former army officer, who has turned to investigative journalism, caught in the world of double and triple-crossing rogue army officers in Kashmir.
He spoke to Senior Editor Arthur J Pais.
Are you embarrassed that you have been compared to Norman Mailer?
I am flattered. I hope I can live up to the expectations.
What are you worried about?
In case of writers like Mailer, there is certain consistency involved. One's reputation does not depend on one book. I have to be much more careful [in maintaining consistency] than many others because my life alternates between peculiar brands of fiction and journalism.
Why would it create problems?
There is tremendous pressure right now. I am very busy publicizing Bunker 13. I am doing book readings in several cities in America, including New York, apart from radio interviews. Then I am off to England. I have also started the web site cobrapost.com
Many writers are scared of publishing a second book, especially when their first book is well received.
I would naturally be worried about any book I am writing. I have started working on my next book. Now cobrapost.com is occupying a lot of my energy. I need to have real peace of mind before continuing to work on my next novel. I will continue with investigative journalism. India needs many small tehelkas (explosions). Mainstream newspapers are not doing good investigative stories.
What is special about Bunker 13?
Contemporary India has not been the subject of most books on India. My book encapsulates the current generation and the middle class' energy.
What about the book's tone?
It is very American. Though I have read many British classic and contemporary writers, I admire the Americans much more, especially writers of the 1960s, including Jack Kerouac (On the Road), J D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). It was a very effervescent generation of writers. It was also a time of unparalleled literary stimulus.
How did you acquire an agent?
Gillon Aitken is an old India hand. He represents Salman Rushdie and V S Naipaul. I had sent him about three years ago the manuscript of the novel Night Out. He liked it but was not going to take it up. He asked if I had something else.
I had written a substantial part of Bunker 13. I sent him those chapters. He immediately agreed to represent me.
How long did Bunker 13 take?
The actual writing took six months. If anyone thinks it was an overnight product and that success came to me too suddenly, I want that person to know that I began writing the book in 1996. I was working for Outlook magazine. I took two months off to work on the book, losing Rs 36,000 in salary. I could have taken one more month if my editor had allowed [laughs]. Writing a novel was always about taking risks, including financial risks. It is not as if I have become lucky all of a sudden. In fact, luck is the last thing that happened.
What were the other risks?
I put down Rs 50,000 to buy a computer. My savings were almost wiped out. I knew I needed a computer to carry on my novel. For Rs 50,000 I could have taken a holiday but I was going to take risks. I was going to write novels.
Was there anything that hastened you into completing the novel?
Aitken was in India in 2002 along with Naipaul. He asked me pointedly when I would complete the novel.
In a way he shamed you?
[Laughs] He shamed me completely. There was no way I could postpone it. It took me a month to give it a final shape and send it to London. Within months it was sold to Faber and Faber, and in America FSG bought the rights. We have also sold the rights for the Italian and Spanish editions.
What is Night Out about and will you revisit it?
It is about something that happens to a boy in Delhi in 24 hours. Yes, I would like to revisit it and revise it.
Did you ever think of giving up journalism for writing novels?
Never. There is too much of lust [in me] for news stories, though writing fiction is also a strong inclination. I began my work career selling office equipment in Kolkata in 1989 but in about two years, I was into journalism, starting as a trainee with India Today. I always knew I would write fiction. But I wonder what I could have done if journalism had not been there for me.
What do you expect American or British readers to take from the book?
An understanding of vibrant contemporary India and its middle class.
And Indian readers?
To understand the book's energy and spirit. It is about an India that hardly anybody writes about. The book engages the present day India.
Do you read many thrillers?
Not many. Among contemporary American writers I admire Carl Hiaasen (Basketcase) for his humor and plots.
Do you think the book will be judged on its own merit in India?
I hope so. I am glad the book reaches India after America and England. I thought that would make it difficult for some people to run down the book because they do not like my journalism. The book should get fair treatment. My journalism should never come in the way of judging my fiction.
Tell us about the dedication of your book.
It is dedicated to Shankaracharya Bharati of Sharada Peetham, Sringeri. The temple is associated with Sri Ramakrishna. For many years I have been a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda's work.
What have you got out of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda?
A deep understanding of Hinduism. As I grew up, I did not have a clear idea about Hinduism. Whatever I read confused me. When I read Swami Vivekananda, I was hit with clarity.