Anuja Chauhan on her new book Baaz: 'I've always wanted to write about war'
Anuja Chauhan speaks to Firstpost about her latest novel Baaz, which chronicles the life of Indian Air Force pilot Ishaan Faujdaar
Anuja Chauhan, who is best known for writing Those Pricey Thakur Girls and Battle for Bittora, wanted to write her latest Baaz for many years now. Chauhan is familiar with the theme of Baaz, which is centered on Indian Air Force pilot Ishaan Faujdaar and how he goes from being a boy who grew up in a Haryana village to fighting for India in the war against Pakistan. She spent her childhood in a cantonment and her father was in the army.
It is a premise that she is both familiar with and fond of, but she realised that most of her cantonment memories were essentially a child's memories. She says that she wanted to hone her craft and do her homework, some of which was quite technical, before she could begin writing Baaz. "I knew that I had to write this book, but it was at the back of my head because I knew I’d have to take a deep-dive into military aspects. I had no notion of what it is like to actually be a serving officer," Chauhan explains.
The author also chose to write this book now because she felt she was ready to deal with the conflict that the subject of war brings with it. "When I write a book, the search is always for conflict of some sort, which I’m not trying to resolve, but rather explore. And this is a big one; it’s valid in our country, in every country, every age — the moral ambiguities that go with war, what goes on in soldiers’ heads — it’s a conflict I always wanted to write about," Chauhan says. She adds that after writing Those Pricey Thakur Girls and The Battle of Bittora, she felt that she needed to get into a more 'macho' space.
The book's title, which means eagle in Hindi, is a reference to the name that Ishaan's friends Maddy and Raka call him, and much of the book expectedly revolves around his frame of mind and life. "Ishaan refused to be contained in a box. He just took over the book, and it became his story. I think that happens because the character that goes through several changes in their character graph is essentially the person whose book it is. He experiences new ways of thinking, and his mind widens in certain ways," Chauhan says.
She attributes Ishaan's charm to the fact that he sees people as people, and does not change how behaves with them based on their gender. "He is very comfortable around women, because he grew up with many younger sisters. He has no issues talking to women, which is why he can chat so happily with people he meets for the first time," Chauhan says.
Ishaan's love interest in the book is Tehmina 'Tinka' Dadyseth, who abhors war. Her own father is an army officer. What makes Tinka's character interesting is the conflict within her own head about the decisions that she takes for herself. She takes up a project where she is supposed to be a still photographer for an ad where a bikini-clad model must stand under a waterfall, but due to a change in circumstances, she ends up featuring in the ad. For this decision, she is chastised by people who know her, while scores of men tease her and hit on her after watching it. As a result, Tinka, who calls herself a feminist, oscillates between questioning her decision and taking pride in it because she feels she should be liberated and proud of her body.
"I find that with feminism, everything is a constant debate. Tinka is as confused as anybody else would be, especially in the Seventies, when society was very patriarchal and people internalised the male gaze. She's also very young; she's younger than 22 when she meets Ishaan. Which one of us has our ideologies completely figured out, especially at that age? You may have a rough notion, but on many subjects, we’re all quite confused," Chauhan says. She adds that Ishaan is quite indulgent towards her and cuts her slack because he realises she is a child. "There’s a line where she says that she wants to end war and he doesn’t laugh. In fact, he also points out her own confusions to her," she says.
In Baaz, there is more than one instance where Ishaan quite literally saves Tinka's life, but Chauhan's book is not about a damsel in distress who needs saving, because at several points in the book, Tinka saves Ishaan too, in the emotional sense. She does this by constantly asking him questions that force him to think more deeply about war and his role in it. "I think in the books that I write, people save each other. When people get together for the long term, you end up becoming the other person’s hero and bodyguard and cheerleader all at the same time," she explains.
Ishaan and Tinka have starkly contrasting ways of looking at war; while he calls her a pacifist, she accuses him of "enjoying" the war, and their debates about it are what form the heart of Baaz. When asked what her own stance on this subject is, Chauhan says, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The 'speak softly' aspect is similar to how Tinka views the situation, while the latter part of the phrase refers to Ishaan's perspective. "Armies should always be well-prepared and ready, but we should always work in a very constructive way with our neighbours," Chauhan opines.
"The joy of writing romance is that you take two people who you think are wildly dissimilar and then you write their conversations, and you realise that they are meant to be. They balance each other out," Chauhan says, with reference to the Ishaan-Tinka equation. While Ishaan has physical courage, Tehmina shows moral courage, and this is why he finds her very brave during their first interaction. She says that it is these two different types of courage that leads to the building of their chemistry. "Chemistry doesn’t come from the sex scenes; it comes from these kind of encounters. It’s a kind of emotional strip poker, where you are revealing yourself to someone. That’s far sexier," she adds.
Anuja Chauhan says that there are many instances from her own life that find a place in Baaz. For example, she has been to flower shows where the wives of army men present flower arrangements, and she has seen the 'War Widow', a white rose covered with thorns, being exhibited. "It’s such a standard thing that people do, such a cheat card. It happens repeatedly," she says with a laugh. In the book, Ishaan's step-father is disgusted when he finds that his son is flying such a small plane. Chauhan's own uncle had a similar experience, and his father-in-law, who was not aware of planes at all, wondered why he married off his daughter to this pilot. Similarly, the character of Dingoo, who tells unbelievable stories, such as the one where a severed hand landed into a punch bowl during a game of mahjong, is completely based on a real person she met.
One of the romances in the book, the equation between Ishaan's friend Raka and Juhi, is based on her own parents' marriage. "My mother and father eloped and got married at a really young age; he was 21 and she was 20. And all of the other boys were bachelors, so she was kind of like their little mum. They would come to her house to eat because she would cook non-mess food and they used to really tease her a lot. They’d try to keep my dad away from her and try to convince him to stay with them and have a drink. They still tease my parents about their honeymoon days because they were all very excited when she showed up to live with them," Chauhan says.
But Chauhan doesn't just borrow characters and plot twists from her own experiences; the belief that pilots must strap the planes onto themselves rather than the other way round is also one she has frequently heard pilots talk about. She has also included such raw, first-hand conversations into the book to give a glimpse into the thoughts that Ishaan is thinking.
One chapter into Baaz, you realise that Chauhan has peppered her book with colloquialisms and certain turns of phrase, which add a distinctly Indian flavour to it. Ishaan often uses 'tell-me-na' as a way to persuade people to reveal secrets and sound smart, while 'baaz-ke-maafik' is his superior Carvalho's favourite way to describe how the young pilots should fly their planes. She also spells certain words the way they would be pronounced, such as 'cun-seet' for conceit. "People pronounce words in exactly this way, and how we pronounce words is a big part of who we are and where we come from, and I like that — the lilts and cadences of different languages. Very often, during the proofreading process, my editor would send it back corrected, and then I have to un-correct it," she explains.
Speaking about characterisation, Chauhan says that dialogues are easy to write when the author knows their characters and the way they think. "And you should sympathise with everybody, even your most sleazy and evil character. You should be able to empathise and say that from their perspective, their way of looking at the world makes total sense. I can sympathise even with poor Chaudhari, Ishaan's step-father, who was reluctantly married off to Ishaan’s widowed mother. When you look at it from his point of view, he got a very bad deal," she says. Still, she does have her favourites. "I like Ishaan, Kainaz and Juhi. Sneha too! They're fun to write," she says.
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