Boots & capers

Boots & capers

On the Double
Tanushree Podder
Roli Books
2015, pp 238, Rs 295

Tanushree Podder’s On the Double follows characters introduced in the earlier novel Boots Belts Berets as they move on from the National Defence Academy to the Indian Military Academy. And like the earlier novel, On the Double is set in the 70s.

There are adventures and mishaps, strict disciplinary routines and rigorous training. And through it all the characters Pessi, Maachh, Porky, Sandy and Zora manage to get themselves in and out of scrapes and even the occasional romantic encounter. As a sequel, On the Double stands well on its own, for the characters from the earlier book are suitably reintroduced.

On the Double captures the ambience of the 1970s well, along with cultural references relevant to the time and the quaint charm of a bygone era. While the tale is told in the first person, from Pessi’s point of view, most of the action is spread out between the characters as they find their place in the Indian Military Academy. Most of it is done through hard work and the rigours of discipline, tactics, and the subtleties of warfare. That does not mean, however, that the protagonists lose their hopes and dreams, or their penchant for mischief of varying kinds that land them more often than not in trouble.

Each of the young protagonists in On the Double has one nickname or the other, and most of the names are humorous. There is Pessi, the narrator, who is an eternal pessimist, or so the reader is told. Maachh is the troublemaker of the group, always thinking of wild schemes. Porky is his constant companion and takes sayings literally. Sandy and Zora form the rest of the group.

And while the young men have individuality, the strained narration does not allow them to develop as they should. There is, for example, a lot of repetition. Maachh and his sidekick Porky are called the “two jokers”, or the “two idiots” over, and over, and over again. Others are referred to as “chaps” or “pals” far too many times. Maachh, whose exploits cover a great deal of the book, is called “The Bong” repeatedly, making reading rather tedious. The reader is also told more than once of each character’s foibles, but there is little action to back them up, or if there is, there is, again, too much “telling”. A lot of the characterisation is buried in the stilted writing. It is possible to sympathise with the young men when they try to get the attention of a certain Kiki in chapter 25. It would have been even easier to read the said chapter if it hadn’t been strewn with so many adjectives.

And the narrator Pessi seems everywhere at once, and knows, apparently, the other characters’ thoughts. There is also a noticeable shortage of the word “said” along with conversations, and the words used in replacement often seem strange. For example, on page 169, the conversationalists ask, suggest, mumble, squirm, remind, and pout. On page 119, they ask, tease, mouth, shout, among others. Some sentences seem missing or incomplete on other pages. Some odd turns of phrase also find their way into the book, as in page 167, “…Maachh deflated his balloon.” And on page 111, Maachh ‘revolts’ that he is hungry.

Nevertheless, there are interesting nuggets of information about life in the Indian Military Academy, about its drills and routines, and the instructors themselves and their experiences, and the transformation of boys into officers. In between it all, they go on a holiday to Mussourie, climb trees for lychees, slip out into the night when they think nobody is looking, and go for movies. The book is, in itself, interesting in theme and content. Smoother writing would have made On the Double easier to read, however, and the characters better fleshed out. With the awkwardness of the language used and the laboured descriptions, some of the nuances of the story may be lost.

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