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Book: Bite of the Black Dogs
Author: Sanjay Bahadur
Publication: Hachette India
Price: Rs 399
In another life, Sanjay Bahadur, currently an income tax officer, would have made quite a journalist. Bite of the Black Dogs, his third novel, is based on operations carried out by the Indian Army at the height of the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley in the 1990s. Bahadur manages, in vivid detail and with admirable accuracy, to take us through the lives of the various actors in his tale, from the insurgents trained across the border to the people of the Valley, and, of course, the armed forces. If the author bio didn’t identify him as an IRS officer, a reader would likely assume that Bahadur is an insider, a former operative in the armed forces or intelligence services, so thorough is his attention to detail.
The evidently extensive research behind the story of Major Vikram Pokriyal (Veep) and his special forces team’s (the Black Dogs) rescue of a kidnapped UN official does not jar through long passages of exposition. To the lay reader, the crisp narrative, sans flourish, ought to be gripping enough. For those with an interest in security and military matters, the little details — the nature of the terrain, arms and planning — with regard to both the insurgents and the armed forces will only enrich the experience.
Part of the book touches on issues beyond the battlefield, of the consequences of the incidents for politics at large. It is here that one can nitpick, talk about the contemporary political context, in which a narrative involving the armed forces and told largely from a sympathetic perspective can be misappropriated and misunderstood. However, while it is clear that Bite of the Black Dogs certainly has a politics, it would be somewhat unfair to judge it by the polarised discourse spawned by a virulent nationalism.
Bahadur’s inspiration, and one of his primary sources, is Brigadier Ajay Pasbola, on whom Veep’s character is loosely based. The events described in the book fictionalise the operation for which Pasbola was awarded the Shaurya Chakra in 1999. A college friend of the author, Pasbola can certainly take comfort in the fictional characters that valourise him and his men. In fact, it is in the character of Veep that one gets the feeling that the author is an “insider”, one who has a stake in the system. That is, perhaps, a testimony to the detail and empathy of Bahadur’s research and writing.
Popular fiction, quick and easy to read, has often lacked the skill it requires to be even partially enriching beyond the immediate in Indian writing in English. Bahadur’s fondness for history and research, however, does lend a tone of authenticity to his work which certainly makes it worth a couple of afternoons.
The Sound of Water, Bahadur’s debut novel inspired by the aftermath of the floods at the Bagdihi colliery in 2001, which trapped and killed several miners, had been longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Prize. His command over the craft of writing — both in style and substance — has improved with his latest book, though this book lacks some of the distance he had from the subject matter in his previous works. On the whole, though, for a quick, decent read in our attention-deficit times, Bite of the Black Dogs certainly clears the bar.