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.
MM makes swift incursions into Kashmir, a land crawling with Muslim terrorists–his charming word for them, apparently shared by much of the Indian Army, is Mossies–but finds time to get high and then have sex with a visiting female reporter from the Times of London. There are more serious revelations in the pages that follow, revelations about the elaborate arms-smuggling racket and the military’s rampant skulduggery. Although the reader is propelled forward purely by the plot, there are small moments when the narrative snags on something more human and meaningful. In a brief but disturbing scene involving a rape by army soldiers in a Kashmiri village, for instance, Bahal uses sharp observation rather than insipid moralism to describe violence–an effective technique.
MM, Bahal’s antihero, has no patience for moralism. Like the men he’s paid to investigate, he’s in it mostly for the money. He listens to a confessional speech by a corrupt colonel, a speech that has a ring of truth to it, and says the words work “like a syringe of steroids straight in his larynx.” This is what the colonel says:
The army, MM, fights at the company level on personal bonds. Flimsy constructs like nationalism mean nothing to us. You hit at that bond and you have a bunch of angry men to deal with, who suddenly go about asking themselves what all this rigmarole is about. Why do they have to risk their lives for a nation that’s insulated to their hardships? Who’s skimming the milk and where’s their share of the cream? It’s certainly more than the basic two thousand rupees take-home plus C-grade rations that include eight eggs a week. Would you risk even a single finger for that, MM?
This is a speech, it seems, that Bahal has heard before. Several pages later, MM is told by a major of the booty he can smuggle: thousands of rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers, five Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and a massive load of heroin. MM whistles with pleasure. “Major,” he says, “you are talking big league. You are talking my language. We could take over Africa with that kind of stuff.”
Who is MM and why is he ready to take over the world? The answer to that question is provided by the rest of the book. This includes the generic convention of the surprise ending. It is a bold but disappointing answer–provided in a body bag that has been stitched with the kind of ideological certainties that Bahal had initially seemed to be writing against.
Yet the book’s gift is greater than its conclusion, or the plotting that stretches plausibility almost to the breaking point. Bunker 13 gives flesh and blood to the ingenuity and rapacity of India’s new entrepreneurial class. Writers and journalists aren’t exempt either. The novel shows that the desire to find and tell the truth is only a move in a high-risk gamble. It follows that there is also a sinister side to MM. At his most chilling, he reminds you of his more modest cousins who have been in the news–those affluent Hindus who took directions on their cell phones and arrived in their SUVs, during the riots in Gujarat last year, to loot the shops owned by Muslims.
MM also resembles other subjects of Bahal’s reporting. In the early 1990s, when heavy betting on cricket matches became a subcontinental trend, Bahal broke the story on match-fixing in India. As a result, the intelligence authorities uncovered an illegal business that, for its most successful bookie, was generating at least $40 million in turnover for each game. In an interview, Bahal explained that the bookies always go for the best players, “not just because they can influence the match, but because the best players also have a higher risk-taking psychology.” The players, he added, were often also heavy gamblers themselves. “It is the way they are wound up. It gives a kick.”
I thought of those words while reading Bunker 13. MM has an unsentimental grasp of money and markets. It is impossible to inhabit his world and not know that writing in India is also now a game of high commercial stakes, reflecting broader changes within the national culture. The staid world of Nehruvian socialism and protected markets is gone. The Indian nation, and indeed much of the world outside, is up for grabs.
When the defense scam erupted in the news in India, Bahal wrote an op-ed in a newsweekly saying that his team’s aim wasn’t to change the system: “That wouldn’t be a fun position.” There was, he said, another reason for writing his exposé. Noting that he was from a small town, he said, “I realized very early that even the powerful pull down their zippers to piss.” I liked the nakedness of that metaphor. Bunker 13 spreads the guilt more evenly. Everyone is suspect in the book because everyone is on the take. It’s refreshing to find early on that the journalist is a crook–and the book’s charm comes from having a narrator who is compromised in more ways than one. At the end, you are almost tempted to forgive Bahal for finding a criminal who, it turns out, is not at all like you and me. The middle-class nation can go about its business in peace again.