In March 2001 a small Internet website in Delhi, tehelka.com, revealed that two of its reporters had used a secret camera to tape senior defense officials and political leaders accepting bribes. Over a period of eight months, the reporters had posed as arms dealers for a fake company called Operation Westend. The broadcast of their tapes on Indian television resulted in a number of resignations, as well as the arrest of people at the top of the ruling establishment. But for ordinary viewers the footage performed a more commonplace function: showing exactly how their politicians did business. The news was oddly reassuring: By confirming the worst suspicions of the Indian public, the tapes restored their sense of the world.
The bribes that had been paid by the two reporters weren’t huge. The president of the party in power, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, was seen accepting a stash of rupee notes worth about $2,000, while a senior army officer pocketed the equivalent of $400. A major general, for his part, told the reporters not to come to his house without a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Still, as paltry as the pay-offs were, the scandal exposed the hollowness of the ruling party’s nationalist rhetoric. The nationalism that had brought the middle class to power, it turned out, was being used to rule the poor and to make a few extra bucks on the sly. The scandal had other, unintended consequences. While laying bare the venality of the middle classes, it may also have given many Indians a sudden sense of potency. Although a part of this response reflected a sense of pride in the emergence of a new, aggressive kind of journalism, there was also something darker there. For the tapes had pointed the way to participation in the world’s largest democracy. You too could be a player in the corridors of power–if you had a few dollars in your briefcase and a set of suitable fictions.
The fictional element was an important part of the presentation. The reporters in the defense scam had managed to sell to the Indian Army hand-held thermal imaging binoculars. These objects did not exist but they had a name that had come from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In the novel, a drunken Yossarian had kidded Colonel Korn by talking about the new Lepage gun being used by the Germans. “What Lepage gun?” the colonel had asked. “The new three-hundred-and-forty-millimeter Lepage glue gun,” Yossarian had said. “It glues a whole formation of planes together in mid-air.” In homage to Heller, Aniruddha Bahal, one of the reporters leading the investigation for tehelka.com, gave the name Lepage 90 to the nonexistent piece of equipment that he was hawking. Bahal has just published Bunker 13, a racy piece of fiction about a journalist with a taste for drugs and sex whose beat covers the secret operations of the Indian Army.
The first word of Bunker 13 is “You.” As in, “You have soldiering boots stuck between your teeth so you don’t maul your tongue.” The entire novel is narrated from the point of view of this “you,” who is also identified as MM, or Minty Mehta, a journalist with a Delhi paper called The Post. He has a worldly voice, knowing, garrulous, generous with information: “The thing about jumping, you remember, is to go out with a thrust. That stops the slipstream from getting a hold over you and banging you against the AN-32 body, loading your face full of aluminum rivets.”
This can be useful in case you were thinking of jumping with an elite corps of paratroopers–after having sniffed neat lines of coke from the mirror in your shaving kit. Of course, having been put in that position by the “you” who is speaking about himself, you realize that you are already supposed to know all this. The fact that you don’t is what gives you a rush. Nor, if you are a literary-minded homebody, will you ever inject the heroin that MM calls “the Afghan soldiers” into your bloodstream while taking your time pulling the cord on your parachute. But the fact that you learn about others who do, and also, in the process, about the corruption that is rife in the armed forces, is enough to make you feel lightheaded and gay.