Trouble in paradise

The troubled Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir’ was the cliché used by the media to describe the unrest in that beautiful region in the 1990s. Tragically, that description still fits, two decades later. Bite of the Black Dogs is set in 1997, in the bubbling cauldron of Kashmir. Sanjay Bahadur’s book is based on real operations of the Special Forces of the 31 regiment of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR). These high-altitude elite commandos of the Indian Army are in the forefront of quelling the waves of militants who cross over the border through the hostile terrain of the Pir Panjal Range of mountains.

Militants, including the Hizbul Mujahideen, truly fear and detest the tenacity and guerilla prowess of the Special Forces, and call them kaale kuththey - black dogs. Bahadur manages to bring across the atmosphere of the ground realities in these treacherous, mountainous battlegrounds. For me personally, it brought back vivid memories of the months spent in Kashmir with units of the Indian Army and the Border Security Force in 1993, travelling to many forward posts there as a TV journalist.

The battles of the Indian Armed Forces are not just against infiltrators supplying arms and ammunition ­— they also intercept couriers bringing in of crores worth of counterfeit Indian currency from across the border. The war against this in urban centres is carried out by the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) which includes the Income Tax department. The author belongs to the IRS and is presently the Commissioner of Income Tax based in Mumbai. He has drawn on his experience to describe the raids against people receiving these fake notes around the country. These consignments meant for Kashmir are brought in by couriers across the other side of the country, through porous borders with Nepal, China and Bangladesh.

The book revolves around Mujahideen infiltrators who cross over on a mission to cause a major disruption in India, including transferring a huge cache of funds. Two American officials from a United Nations military observer group who are in Srinagar to observe the situation in India and Pakistan — a Caucasian woman and an African American — travel to the border area to assess the ground situation. And everything is set for an explosive mix. Bahadur sets a relentless pace that matches that of Special Forces Major Vyom Pokhriyal and his team of aces in their pursuit of militants across perilous mountain tracks.

The build-up is excellent, racy and so is the climax — you can hear, feel and see the gunshots, the gory hand-to-hand struggles, the explosions, and the rain-lashed, precariously narrow mountain paths that the militants and the Special Forces pound across on foot.

The disappointing misfire is at the actual high point of the book around which the whole plot is deftly arranged. To say more would be a giveaway and a spoiler, but suffice it to say that the conditions leading up to the denouement are not fully plausible, especially given the painstaking details of the thoroughness and ruthless efficiency of the militants and the Indian Army operating in Kashmir. I personally felt that Bahadur should have spent just a little more time to tweak this portion so that the book retained its tautness throughout. The events that precede and follow have enough momentum to carry you through this gap to the final resolution, but an opportunity to iron out this wrinkle has been lost.

Bahadur cannot resist some Indian filmi touches at a few places, but the tragedy of the situations help carry the story forward. He also has some trust issues with the reader. That anxiety comes across in many unnecessarily tagged-on descriptions about Indian terms and military jargons. For example: “…I am a Hakim, my friend… a doctor of Yunani medicine…” There was no need to describe who a Hakim was. These explanations cause small disruptions in an otherwise riveting tale.

The book’s events are inspired by the actual military exploits of the author’s college-mate, who went on to receive the Shaurya Chakra in person from the President. The real-life incident for which the gallantry award was given is also incorporated in the book with dramatic details. Many others receive such awards posthumously. The book reflects the deep sadness of a beautiful paradise haunted by the futility and tragedy of armed conflict. The 14th century Sufi poet Amir Khusrow wrote: ‘Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.’ (‘If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here.’) It is said that Emperor Shah Jahan loved the beauty of Kashmir, and had these words engraved and placed on a terrace in Srinagar’s Shalimar Gardens.

As for that bewitchingly alluring place, readers can only echo what Bahadur says in his note at the end of the book: “…Like many others, I pray constantly for the suffering in Kashmir to end and for the souls of the soldiers who have died fighting madness… I wait eagerly for the day when the region returns to being the paradise it once was…”

Bite of The Black Dogs

Sanjay Bahadur


2017, pp 301,Rs 399


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