Bunker 13 is one exhausting novel. Written by a leading Indian investigative journalist, it is a satirical thriller revolving around military corruption in the Kashmir conflict. But that barely tells the half of it. Imagine Catch-22 rewritten by Hunter S Thompson then grafted on to a plot co-authored by Carl Hiaasen and Tom Clancy and set in an unapologetically modern India, and you might be getting close.
It’s clear that Bunker 13 will be a full-on read from the first sentence: “You have soldiering boots stuck between your teeth so you don’t maul your tongue…” The author goes on to write the whole book in the second person, that most ostentatious – not to mention wearying – of literary voices. And it has to be said that Bunker 13 is, at times, a somewhat wearying read. But let’s leave the carping till later, because there is plenty to celebrate. For starters there’s the central character, undercover reporter Minty Mehta. MM is a classic journalistic alter ego – his role in uncovering corruption at the highest levels parallels Bahal’s own exposure of two of the biggest scandals in recent Indian history.
The fictional MM has a prodigious appetite for hallucinogenic drugs, guns and sex, and is on a drug-blasted journey into the heart of Kashmiri darkness, a region where life is very cheap indeed. So far, so good, and the first part of the book – in which MM takes a sky-diving course, then infiltrates a cabal of rogue officers profiteering from the war by selling confiscated heroin and weaponry to the highest bidders – is tense and funny. It’s convincingly drawn and scathing in its scattergun demolition of any sacred cow within hailing distance.
Thereafter, though, as MM returns to Delhi, chases his editor’s nubile daughter and takes even more drugs, while setting up an elaborate sting operation, the novel ditches its satirical thrust in favour of a conventional thriller structure. At this point, things start to go awry.
The problem stems from Bahal’s “more is more” approach. As long as the emphasis is on satire, it all adds to the comic momentum. When it comes to thriller plotting, though, piling on the twists and turns simply leads to an unconvincing plot in which millions of interchangeable minor characters wander in and out of view, and there’s an increasing reliance on using huge slabs of back story in an effort to persuade the reader that the whole thing makes sense. Worst of all is the novel’s denouement, which gives one an urge to hurl the book across the room in disgust.
This might, of course, matter less to the subcontinental reader; after all, the military corruption that MM exposes is clearly intended to parallel the real scandal that Bahal revealed last year for the investigative website www.tehelka.com – and which resulted in a national outcry. In the end, though, a novel has to work as fiction, not just as a coded gloss on real life. So does Bunker 13 succeed? Well, yes. For all its faults, this is still a remarkable debut, a fire-breathing work of political satire welded on to a slightly dodgy thriller. To be taken in small doses.
· John Williams’s novel The Prince of Wales is published by Bloomsbury.
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