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I will almost always read any book set in India that I can get my hands on. Bunker 13 was one of my bargain buys when Borders bookshops were 48 hours from liquidation. I can't help thinking that I'd rather have seen it pulped than brought it home to read.
It's rare that a book leaves me with a nasty taste in my mouth, but Bunker 13 is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. My old friend Tina used to say that "Life's too short to read cr*p books" and her motto went through my mind every time I picked up my copy. It's hard to explain what kept me going right to the end - other than the sense of enjoyment I'd get from telling you, dear readers, what a heap of horribleness is contained within the covers of this grubby little tome.
I've always rather admired the Indian army. That probably sounds like a strange thing to say, but I've taken holidays in the Indian Himalaya and spent many a moment parked on the side of the road watching large convoys of pristine army trucks passing by, driven by neatly turned out men with dapper moustaches who are unable to pass your vehicle without returning your wave - even on a hairpin bend, with tens of tons of truck, these guys are incapable of being discourteous. Last weekend I watched a film about the heroism of the Indian forces in the conflict in Kargil in 1999 - around the time that this book is set - and it was a cathartic experience, which I entirely needed to wash away the contamination caused by this trashy book.
~The Plot - if you can call it that~
Minty Mehta - or MM as he's referred to through the book - is a disgraced army-cadet turned investigative journalist who has managed to get himself embedded with the Indian military. The novel starts with him at the parachute training centre and then follows him off on missions with the Indian Special Forces engaged in conflict in Kashmir on the disputed border with Pakistan. He takes a lot of drugs, gets involved in smuggling operations, sets different regiments off against one another, brokers deals with foreign 'organisations' for guns, drugs and secrets, and isn't averse to killing people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. His apparent mission is to kill plenty of 'mossies' (Muslims to you and me) and to take as many hard drugs as possible. In between he has strangely unfulfilling sexual encounters with various women. I know what you're thinking - "What a lovely fellow! What's not to like about our Minty?"
I hated this book from the moment I opened it. I was taken in by the cover quotation likening it to "Catch 22 rewritten by Hunter S Thompson". What the reviewer who said that seemed to have missed was that Catch 22 was a work of great black humour and compassion - two elements very sadly lacking in Bunker 13. Whilst the trader wheeler-dealer of Catch 22 did admittedly sell off all the drugs from the medical kits, it was generally to get eggs or other goodies for his comrades. When MM steals and finagles drugs and guns, he's seemingly doing it purely for his own benefit.
The book opens with MM writing to the Indian army chief, asking to make a documentary about how paratroopers are trained. He claims it will be a 'great image-building' exercise that will help the army to recruit new elite troops. But behind the scenes, MM describes this as one of "the many ways that a homo sapiens with an IQ of 130 can f*** himself in the flagging end of the twentieth century". MM is off to parachute school, learning how to fall and creating ever more extreme ways to take ever more dangerous drugs whilst free-falling through the air with his buddy Major Rodriguez. The creativity required to main-line heroin and the sense of control required to still pull your chord at the right time, defies belief. I hate to think how many impressionable people might read this book and think this sort of stuff is 'big and clever'. People get killed, nobody cares, as Rodriguez and MM try to out-shock each other. It's just plain nasty.
After wading through over 300 pages of poorly written yukky prose, the 'twist' at the end is utterly ridiculous and beggars belief. A good twist should make you think "Aha, so that's what it was all about. It all slots into place now". This one leaves you thinking "I will never get back the hours of my life which I have squandered on this unmitigated pap". Two further aspects - aside from the ridiculous plot - that drove me crazy were Bahal's love of writing page after page of descriptions of different types of guns or other armaments, and most of all the ludicrous stylistic device of writing the entire book as if you, the reader, are the central character and it's all happening in the present tense. For example: "Speed is essential. You want to swoop before the Mossies get any advanced warning". It's like that the whole way through. If Bahal has the idea that writing 'at' us in this way will somehow make us feel more involvement with and sympathy for MM. Simply put, it just doesn't work. I couldn't have felt less involved or less empathy if I'd tried really hard.
I've written before about sex in Indian novels - the difficulties between hinting at it, or writing directly but always with a sense of fear in case the author's mum might be reading. Bahal doesn't have any qualms about hitting you between the eyes and it's generally not 'nice' sex. The guy needs to wash his brain out with soapy water. I'm no prude but I would put some of this up for the annual 'bad sex awards'.
Aniruddha Bahal is apparently a bit of a big-cheese in the Indian investigative journalism world, or at least that's what his website claims. I'm guessing he's a sort of Donal Macintyre of the sub-continent. In 1997 he uncovered fraud and match-fixing in Indian cricket, and then went on to lift the lid on fraud in politics (who'd have imagined!) which led to the resignation of two very senior BJP politicians. Thankfully he admits that Bunker 13 is entirely fictional. Let's be grateful for small mercies.
Allegedly the media frenzy surrounding Bunker 13 was intense and likened to the attention that The God of Small Things got when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize. I can only say that the frenzy must have been absolutely the only thing that these two books could possibly have had in common.
Details - if I've not succeeded in putting you off:
Published by faber (who should be ashamed of themselves)
List price £7.99
Addendum - I am absolutely thrilled to bits to have just discovered that my throw away comment about the bad sex awards wasn't as throw away as I thought. A little bit of googling and I just learned that Bunker 13 won the 2003 Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Well how about that? I think it was something to do with the swastika topiary on the furry bits of the protagonist's 'love interest'. Good to learn I'm not the only one who thought that was just plain silly.