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Laying bare a battle - Deccan Herald
Laying bare a battle
Sumitra Kannan,
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The worst pain in the world is the betrayal of a friend" The Wrong Turn is a marvellous, many-layered book that immediately brings to mind a technicolour film in CinemaScope, with its potential to become a roaring box-office hit. It has everything to capture the imagination - war, death, young love, friendship, jealousy, and a betrayal as sharp as a knife's point.

Seventy years after Independence, it stirs up interest in the enigmatic figure of Netaji and an idle curiosity of what if his INA forces had won that war against Britain. A man who in counterpoint to Gandhi declared: "The sword to the warrior is as necessary for justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint," and is deliciously audacious: "300 years of sitting on our hands... what are we, sheep?"

One wishes one had known this jaunty man who mobilised an army of Indians outside India, and joined forces with the Japanese to launch a war against the mighty British and their Allies. Netaji played a pivotal role in hastening the end of British rule in India. It was he who made clear in no uncertain terms that the British had overstayed their welcome.

The little-known Battle of Kohima was one of the bloodiest battles fought by British against the joint forces of Japanese and the INA, and they won it by a hairbreadth. It is to the credit of authors Sanjay Chopra and Namita Roy Ghose that they have taken a detail from history, and hammered a delicate story of passion and thwarted love onto to it, to create a larger-than-life romance.

Bengal is in the clutches of a famine created artificially by the British. Millions are dying. Yet the upper echelons like the Mookherjis are supremely unaware of this tragedy around them. Bubbles Mookherji, once a famed beauty, is now simply sozzled, and Sir Harry Mookherji has a talent for losing money. Their son, the handsome Debraj Mookherji, steps off a boat from England with a shiny degree from Cambridge and an intact world view, only to find his kid sister Debi made pregnant by his best friend, an Englishman, Andrew. That in itself is a small wrinkle easily ironed out, but it is what Andrew says when refusing to marry Debi - "'re native, I'm British and I fockin' rule you" - that jolts Deb's perspective of who is on top and who is at the bottom. From then on, he simply tumbles from one situation into another as the very centre of his being has been shaken, and soon finds himself as part of Netaji's Indian National Army.

The rest of the story is how this almost-British saheb discovers and binds his loyalties. It is a story of his maturing, from "I don't know if I would knowingly be able to kill a man" to becoming a battle-scarred warrior, of finding the one true love of his life although he enjoyed being footloose and fancy-free in love, his learning to put life's gift to him - his easy camaraderie - to good use, most importantly of discovering what it is to live life when the goal is a greater good. There's his friendship with Major Nishonko, an intense young man. They are as alike as chalk and cheese, but bound by their commitment to their common goal. Their lives get complicated when their interests interface in Aditi, a quicksilver of a girl, just coming into bloom. Then, there are the elements of love, hate, and blinding jealousy.

It is an achievement when history is moved from between the dusty covers of a book to real life. The name Kohima stays in the mind long after one is done reading the book. The smell of gunpowder hangs in the air. The picture of a young soldier with down on his upper lip, who accidentally steps on a land mine while going to fetch water, and how he loosens all his belongings, including the worn photo of a young girl, and throws them to his compatriots, and waits trembling yet bravely for death that is coming, is heart-rending. So is the story of another soldier caught on a barbed fence and bleeding, but who waits with a superhuman effort to take a few Brits along with him as he ends his life.

Storytelling is rooted firmly to the culture of India, and it is an old man of trembly bones and rheumy eyes whose narration unfolds the story bit by bit. He has been there, done that, and holds us just as mesmerised as his audience of three or four, in that rattly café on a misty winter morning in Calcutta. The end, when it comes, is slightly dramatic but easy to forgive in a book of such scope.

The Wrong Turn

Sanjay Chopra & Namita Roy Ghose
2017, pp 488
Rs. 295