the-south-asian.com August 2003
Aniruddha Bahalís Bunker 13 is a drugs, sex and espionage nail-biter on the Indo-Pak border. Published by Faber & Faber of London, the book promises to be one of the biggest fiction titles of the year worldwide. After two years he is ready with a Tehelka of the publishing kind!
Investigative journalist Aniruddha Bahalís first novel Bunker 13 has created a sensation in the literary world and promises to be one of the biggest fiction titles of the year worldwide.
Aniruddha Bahal is no stranger to fame and controversy. In 1997, as a sports writer of a national weekly, Bahal wrote a string of exclusives about match-fixing within Indian cricket that resulted in some players being thrown out of the team.
But the big story was to unfold four years later when he masterminded the Tehelka sting where politicians and senior bureaucrats and army officials were videotaped accepting bribes from Bahal and his colleague posing as arms dealers. The corruption he uncovered triggered a nationwide scandal resulting in the resignation of the BJP president, Bangaru Laxman and defence minister George Fernandez.
In fact when news came that the world renowned Faber & Faber of London [represented in India by Penguin Books] had given a huge advance to Bahal for Bunker 13, the common speculation was that the plot would revolve around the ignoble scoop involving members of the ruling NDA government.
The book, according to Bahal was conceived long before the sting operation that all but ruined the reputation of some of the high and mighty. " It has nothing to do with Tehelka. Itís a purely fictional piece of work and written in fiction form. I hope people enjoy reading it as a thriller," says Bahal looking relaxed even though heís been through another bout of CBI grilling for his role in Tehelka.
" The book depicts the underbelly of contemporary India. Something which is not much written about these days," says Bahal, and adds, " I feel flattered when the reviews compare my work with the likes of Robert Ludlum or Norman Mailer. I hope I live up to the expectations of readers."
Bunker 13, the bone-crunching action thriller revolving around a former army cadet turned investigative journalist Minty Mehta or MM who is a thrill seeking, self destructive fellow with a taste for hard drugs and kinky sex.
The magazine for which MM works sends him to report the Indo-Pakistan hostilities on the Kashmir border. He is embedded with the army and makes many sorties over the enemy lines from Bunker 13. But soon the coverage of war becomes a secondary issue as he discovers that a few rogue army men are deeply involved in drugs and arms seized from smugglers.
" Being a journalist I had access to various resources and many people from different walks of life came forward to help me. Luckily I didnít have to run from place to place to get information about the goings-on in some sections of the army," says Bahal who himself covered the Kargil war in 1999.
Interestingly Bahal started working on Bunker 13 way back in 1996. After writing a few chapters he sent them to Gillon Atiken, the literary agent of V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, who told him to go ahead and finish the book.
However, destiny had other plans---first came the expose about the nefarious links of some cricketers with high stake betting syndicates. Such was the scandal that many players lost their place in the team for throwing away matches. Then came the big Tehelka----the undercover operation that exposed corruption at the highest levels of Indiaís defence ministry and shook the entire nation.
When Atiken came to India in 2002 with V.S. Naipaul he told Bahal that his book had the makings of a best seller and he should complete it fast. Perhaps for the first time realising the real potential, Bahal began giving the finishing touches. Once complete Atiken struck an undisclosed megabuck deal with Faber and Faber in England and America FSG in the U.S.
Not too unexpectedly Bunker 13 has created a literary sensation last seen when Arundhiti Royís Booker award winning God of Small Things was released. Though some critics say that it is too racy and too Americanised to pass off as an Indian thriller, yet the fact is that it is a drugs-and-arms nail-biter revolving around a powerful anti-hero.
In these times of Harry Potter, Bunker 13 is robustly holding its own. " Iíll be dividing time equally between writing books and journalism," says Bahal who has already started working on another thriller.
As far as journalism goes, Bahal has already left www.tehelka.com to set up his own establishment-bashing website, www.cobra.com.
Now with his newfound status as a fiction writer, would he find time for investigative journalism? " Of course I will. Thatís a mission. With my new website I want to keep alive the sense of public outrage which is dying in India. When you start accepting corruption and bribery as a way of life, when you stop fighting these evils, then you stop developing. In my own small way I want to keep public interest in journalism alive."
The cataclysmic repercussions of Tehelka have not unnerved Bahal. There was a time when he was interrogated by a battery of 40 government lawyers. " Whenever someone asked me what my favourite bedtime reading was, I would say, Ďcourt affidavitsí. But in the end I am happy that Tehelka was able to put the truth across. And I am grateful for the overwhelming support we got." In fact such was the response that in those heady days Tehelka.com saw its traffic zoom to a staggering 30 million hits a week.
" You may sometimes wonder why you are doing all this but thereís always a thrill in the end," says Bahal. Much like his hero MM who, while walking through the jungles of Kashmir reflects, "Ö.. you neednít have got into this shit you find yourself in right now, tagging 20 kilometres with a 20 kilo rucksack burning your backÖ.."
The journey for Bahal may have been rough but itís definitely been both eventful and rewarding.
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